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McGeorge, John Alexander Hughes (1898–1979)

by Stephen Garton

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

John Alexander Hughes McGeorge (1898-1979), forensic psychiatrist, was born on 12 October 1898 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of John Matheson McGeorge, wine merchant, and his wife Martha, née George. Young John was educated at Hillhead High School, Glasgow, Newington College (1913-15), Sydney, and the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1927; D.P.M., 1932). On 8 April 1925 at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral he married Jean Lapish, a 26-year-old milliner; they were to remain childless. Medical officer at Parramatta Mental Hospital from 14 April 1927, he moved to Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic as senior medical officer on 6 May 1929. He resigned in 1936 and established himself in private practice, becoming honorary psychiatrist at Royal Prince Alfred and Sydney hospitals, and at the Women's Hospital, Crown Street.

All three armed services benefited from McGeorge's skills. After serving as an honorary major (1940-42) in the Militia, he was appointed temporary squadron leader, Royal Australian Air Force, in November 1942. Promoted wing commander in 1945, he transferred to the reserve in 1951. He continued as a consultant psychiatrist to the R.A.A.F. and held a similar position with the Royal Australian Navy from 1945.

Having passed the Barristers' Admission Board examinations, McGeorge was admitted to the Bar on 28 November 1952, but never practised. When confronted with the choice between 'neurotics in Macquarie Street' and 'bad boys in Long Bay', he opted for the latter. As consultant psychiatrist (1952-64) to the Department of Justice, he assessed many of the State's most notorious criminals, and sat (1951-57) on the Parole Board of New South Wales. His reputation spread. In 1955 he went to Honiara, Solomon Islands, to advise in the case of an English missionary who had killed a young boy with an axe. In 1962 the Victorian government, embroiled in a public outcry over its intention to hang Ronald Tait (the 'notorious vicarage murderer') invited McGeorge to assess him. He found Tait to be sane, but confounded all sides by declaring his opposition to capital punishment. That year he was publicly criticized for his role in the release of Leonard Lawson, a convicted rapist who killed two young girls after gaining his freedom. Even in his retirement McGeorge continued to assess the 'worst' offenders. Over forty years he interviewed some 7000 prisoners, including more than 500 murderers. Albert Moss, the 'mutilation murderer', was the 'most brutal' offender he encountered.

An enthusiastic public speaker and frequent contributor to the press, McGeorge was an avid popularizer of his calling. His views on the causes of juvenile delinquency, the role of alcohol in crime, homosexuality, parole, the need for permanent confinement of serious offenders, capital punishment, family life, and the mental health of famous people were well known. He was a forthright, common-sense psychiatrist, with little time for the 'idiocies' of Freud and his followers. To McGeorge, criminals were sometimes the product of overactive 'glands', but more often of 'slovenly, repressive, indulgent or broken homes'. None the less, free will could overcome determinism, except when will was eroded by alcohol. He was a firm supporter of early-closing legislation. A number of people took exception to his views. (Sir) Neville Cardus dismissed McGeorge's claim that musical genius was often the result of mental instability, and (Sir) Stephen Roberts criticized McGeorge and other opponents of rehabilitation programmes for long-term prisoners.

McGeorge taught postgraduates at the University of Sydney (from 1950) and the University of New South Wales (from 1958). A foundation member of the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists and its successor the (Royal) Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry (1964), he was president (1948-52) of the local branch of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (federal president 1952), and a member of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences and of the International Commission of Jurists. In 1962 he was appointed O.B.E.

Large and imposing, with a ruddy complexion, dark hair and a clipped moustache, McGeorge had a relaxed and assured manner. His direct opinions, however, earned him a reputation as a 'stormy petrel'. After he retired he appeared as a regular panellist on the ATN-7 television programme, 'People in Conflict', and wrote his reminiscences, Reflections of a Psychiatrist (1966). He belonged to the Australian Society of Authors, and to the Air Force and Royal Prince Alfred Yacht clubs. Survived by his wife, he died on 9 May 1979 at his Neutral Bay home and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery, unacknowledged by any obituary in the major medical journals.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Feb 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Feb 1944, 22 Feb 1946, 29 Nov 1952, 26 Sept 1955, 31 Jan 1956, 1 Jan, 11 Oct 1962, 28 Aug 1963, 26 Jan 1964
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1964.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'McGeorge, John Alexander Hughes (1898–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgeorge-john-alexander-hughes-10954/text19467, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 October 2018.

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

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