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McDonald, Sir Charles George (1892–1970)

by Gregory Haines

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Charles George McDonald (1892-1970), by Jack Hickson, 1964

Charles George McDonald (1892-1970), by Jack Hickson, 1964

State Library of New South Wales

Sir Charles George McDonald (1892-1970), physician and university chancellor, was born on 25 March 1892 at Newcastle, New South Wales, seventh child and youngest of five sons of William McDonald, a publican from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Mary, née Slattery. Dominant and devoted, Mary had a 'blessed obsession with education' for all her ten children. Charles attended the convent school of the Sisters of Mercy, Singleton, and Singleton Superior Public School where the headmaster tutored him privately in Latin and French. After the family had moved to Sydney, he went to Sydney Boys' High School (on a scholarship). Uninterested in sport, he concentrated on his lessons, literature and debating, co-founded the school magazine, the Record, and was senior prefect (1909-10). Having passed the senior public examination with honours in four languages, McDonald won a bursary, wrestled with the choice of entering law or medicine, tossed a coin and enrolled in the latter at the University of Sydney (M.B., 1916; Ch.M., 1928). He debated, contributed to a student songbook, edited Hermes (1915-16) and the Sydney University Medical Journal (1916-20), presided (1917) over the medical society and penned a marvellous satire on the dour dean of medicine, Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart.

In 1916 McDonald began a long association with Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, initially as a resident medical officer. Appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, on 17 June 1918, he was disappointed not to serve overseas, but worked in the army's anti-tuberculosis dispensary at Randwick, gaining experience in diseases of the chest. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 29 October 1919. That day, at the Sacred Heart Church, Mosman, he married with Catholic rites Elsie Isobel Hosie, a 25-year-old stenographer. After ending his military service with the rank of major in September 1920, he continued as a visiting specialist at the Randwick dispensary. He was also honorary adviser on tuberculosis to the Australian Red Cross Society and examiner for admissions to the Queen Victoria Homes for Consumptives. Meanwhile, he began general practice at Randwick (1919) and then at Hurstville (1920). He always insisted on the value of the human bond between doctor and patient, and stressed how important it was for specialists and, particularly, professors of medicine, to spend some years in general practice.

Honorary assistant-physician in the tuberculosis clinic at R.P.A.H. from 1920, McDonald encountered a team of senior physicians whose standards impressed him greatly. He learned from G. E. Rennie the importance of Socratic questioning in bedside teaching; from Professor A. E. Mills he gained enthusiasm for the new medicine based on biophysics and biochemistry. McDonald remained at R.P.A.H. as an honorary or consulting physician until his death, and was a member (1964-70) of its board. Other hospitals where he worked included Royal North Shore, Lewisham, St Joseph's (Auburn), Prince Henry and St George.

The infectious, slowly understood and lethal nature of tuberculosis had made McDonald's choice that of a man of courage. His work involved him with large numbers of cases: in his first year the clinic saw 510 new patients, 365 of whom lived with an infected person. He also taught on two afternoons a week. By 1924 Mills regularly used him as his deputy on teaching rounds in the hospital, and as lecturer in the university; he wrote that McDonald's 'classes are crowded, not only by those students who are allotted to him, but by others keen and eager to learn from him . . . he has the gift . . . of making his students understand the principles on which . . . knowledge is based'. That year McDonald became a tutor at the hospital. In 1928 he joined Mills and another mentor, S. A. Smith, as a specialist in Macquarie Street. He and Smith met six days a week for morning tea; their conversation on Wednesday and Saturday concentrated on the afternoon's horse-races.

McDonald had been assistant-editor (1920-22) of the Medical Journal of Australia; he published eight papers (mainly to do with the chest), and wrote over thirty editorials and commentaries for the journal. Despite this record, and strong references, he was unsuccessful in his application for the Bosch chair of medicine at the university in 1929. From 1938 he lectured there in clinical medicine. On 1 July 1940 he was appointed lieutenant colonel, A.I.F. Attached to the 2nd/6th Australian General Hospital, he sailed for the Middle East in December. He landed in Greece in March 1941. In the following month he organized the escape of a group of nurses by destroyer, then moved with the hospital to Gaza, Palestine. Returning to Sydney on 27 February 1943, he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 7 June and was mentioned in dispatches. He resumed his post at the university, where he taught until 1952.

A founder (1938) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, McDonald was a member (1938-62) of its first council, secretary (1944-48), vice-president (1948-50), censor-in-chief (1950-54) and president (1954-56). He later chaired the editorial committee of the college's Australasian Annals of Medicine and its finance advisory committee. In 1956 he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London. Among other activities, he was a member (1946-62) of the State Medical Board and a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales. He was chief medical officer (in time a trustee, then director) of the Mutual Life & Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd for thirty years.

In 1942 McDonald had been elected to the Senate of the University of Sydney. Deputy-chancellor in 1953-54, he loved the university and was deeply aware of its history. He succeeded Sir Charles Blackburn as chancellor in 1964. These were tumultuous years for the university—World War II and its aftermath, new universities, the Colombo plan, Commonwealth funding and student activism. McDonald defended the right of students to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, but, when some agitators went too far, he declared that the law must be upheld. In 1969 he was considering increased student representation on the senate.

McDonald's Catholic faith was central to his life. In the early 1930s he helped to establish the Catholic Medical Guild of St Luke. He became a respected counsellor—in more than medical matters—to Church leaders such as Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy. With J. H. McClemens, he was a founder of the Newman Association of Catholic Graduates at the university; from 1953 he was chairman of Sancta Sophia College council. He also staunchly supported the annual university service at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral. Archbishop (Sir) Marcus Loane noted, at McDonald's death, that his 'deep concern was to establish a Christian standard as the norm of all his activities'.

Ill health had prevented McDonald from attending the medical graduation on 19 January 1970. His prepared address, read by his deputy and successor (Sir) Hermann Black, included the following words: 'You will learn medicine and learn the wise practice of it only if you listen to your patients, are sympathetic with them as they should be with you, if you study their anxieties and their hopes and if you have a deep sense of devotion to your vocation'.

Although admired for his wit and warmth, and his culture and learning, McDonald had no ear for music. Some were wary of his hearty and determined style of arguing. He belonged to the Australian and Royal Sydney Golf clubs, and served as a councillor and president of Sydney High School Old Boys' Union. McDonald had been appointed C.B.E. (1956) and a knight commander of the papal Order of St Gregory the Great (1960); he was knighted in 1962 and elevated to K.B.E. in 1970. A chain-smoker who preferred his Capstan cigarettes in a holder, Sir Charles died on 23 April 1970 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by his wife, daughter and four sons, of whom Geoffrey and John became medical practitioners, and Charles, the youngest, a Jesuit priest.

Portraits of McDonald by (Sir) William Dargie are held by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Apr 1970, p 290
  • Sydney High School Old Boys' Union, High Bulletin, 50, June 1970, p 3
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 17 Oct 1970, p 750
  • Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, vol 7, no 1, 1981, p 15.

Citation details

Gregory Haines, 'McDonald, Sir Charles George (1892–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-sir-charles-george-10931/text19421, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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