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McKelvey, Sir John Lawrance (1881–1939)

by Douglas Miller

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir John Lawrance McKelvey (1881-1939), surgeon, was born on 9 February 1881 at Ravenswood, Queensland, second child of John Lawrance McKelvey, hotelkeeper, and his wife Catherine Ellen, née Kerfoot, both Irish born. Educated at Townsville Grammar School, he resided at St John's College while studying arts in 1899, then medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., 1905; Ch.M., 1911). He was resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1905, becoming acting medical superintendent in 1906; next year he was demonstrator in anatomy at the university. He spent 1908 as medical superintendent at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital before returning in 1909 to the same position at Royal Prince Alfred.

McKelvey was appointed an honorary assistant surgeon there when he went into private practice in 1911, and at St Vincent's Hospital in 1913. At St Patrick's, Church Hill, on 8 January that year he married Jane Trigg Lane, adopted daughter of Dr R. H. Treloar and somewhat publicized as 'a beauty' in the newspaper columns; their only child died in infancy.

By the early 1920s McKelvey was an honorary surgeon at Royal Prince Alfred and St Vincent's hospitals and a consultant at South Sydney Women's and Canterbury District Memorial hospitals. He succeeded to a considerable practice from Sir Herbert Maitland in 1923 and was generally regarded as a skilful and deft operator who modelled himself on Sir Alexander MacCormick, but he published little, lacked originality and made no contributions to surgical progress. Surgical tutor for ten years, he lectured in clinical surgery at the university from 1926 and was an entertaining teacher, a good raconteur and enjoyed the company of willing listeners. A foundation fellow in 1927, McKelvey became a council-member in 1937 and a vice-president in 1939 of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He served on the New South Wales Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine and the advisory council of Prince Henry Hospital and was a fellow of St John's College. Knighted in 1933, he was a well-known and forceful figure in the medical world at a time when the profession had recognized leaders.

Although McKelvey liked to use classical references and had a very good memory, he was not deeply learned. He had many admirers and sycophants, but also many detractors. He was of medium build, thickset, with a square jaw and had a rather determined expression except for a charming smile, reserved for children and a few friends. Despite his professional success, his way of life was simple; he was charitable to patients and uninterested in making money. He belonged to the university club, and enjoyed music, golf, fishing and above all racing. He was a member of the Australian Jockey Club from 1918 and was elected to its committee in 1938. Knowledgeable about thoroughbred breeding, in 1938 he had the rare experience of winning at the first attempt with his first racehorse, Marengo.

Early in 1939 McKelvey suffered a severe stroke, becoming hemiplegic and aphasic; he died of heart disease at his home at Potts Point on 7 July 1939 and, after a service at St Mary's Cathedral, was buried in South Head cemetery. His wife survived him, and inherited his estate, valued for probate at £17,947.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2 Sept 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1933, 25 Apr 1938, 8 July 1939.

Citation details

Douglas Miller, 'McKelvey, Sir John Lawrance (1881–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckelvey-sir-john-lawrance-7385/text12839, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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