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Morris, Emanuel Sydney (1888–1957)

by James Gillespie

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

Emanuel Sydney Morris (1888-1957), public health administrator, was born on 22 October 1888 at Marrickville, Sydney, sixth child of Russian-born parents Aaron Morris, jeweller, and his wife Bertha, née Lippman. After attending Sydney Grammar School, he studied medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., 1911, Ch.M., 1912; M.D., 1926). At the Great Synagogue on 30 November 1909 Syd married 30-year-old Alice Sarah Cashmore. He was appointed junior medical officer, Hospitals for the Insane, Victoria, on 27 February 1913, and medical superintendent, Hospital for the Insane, New Norfolk, Tasmania, in December 1915. Following the death of his wife in 1918, he was commissioned captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, on 25 June. He served in the Middle East after the Armistice, mainly with the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 17 September 1919.

Morris belonged to a generation of health administrators who emerged from World War I with grand ambitions for social reform, seeking to strengthen Australia by implementing sound, professional measures of national hygiene. He completed a diploma of public health at the University of Sydney in 1920 and returned to Tasmania as chief health officer (from 1 May). On 16 February 1921 he married with Methodist forms Irene Totten Rabone (d.1956) at Strathfield, Sydney; they were to have three children.

In 1924 Morris settled in Sydney as senior medical officer and director of maternal and baby health. He brought to his position a new emphasis on research and administrative reform. His essay, 'Salus Populi Suprema Lex', was based on a major survey which demonstrated that the fall in infant mortality rates had been offset by a significant rise in maternal mortality and morbidity. He recommended more thorough training in midwifery for medical students and the integration of private practice with public health administration. His study was awarded the Melbourne Permanent Committee for Post-Graduate Work's annual prize of 150 guineas in 1925 and gained him a doctorate in the following year. Under his control, the State's baby health centres were greatly expanded, with the co-operation of the Country Women's Association in rural areas.

In 1934 Morris was promoted director general of health. His dominance over the department was complete. A Quaker, he used 'Brother' as a mode of greeting 'into which he could inflect with unmistakable clarity the amount of familiarity that he would permit in speech'. One of his officers recalled that he was 'never self-effacing'. Morris was president (1934) and a fellow (1938) of the Royal Sanitary Institute in New South Wales, and a foundation fellow (1938) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

A member (1936-52) of the National Health and Medical Research Council, Morris helped to turn its attention to problems of 'national fitness', arguing that the state 'is slowly but surely taking upon itself the management of the physical life of the individual'. In 1941 he denounced fee-for-service medicine and argued that national survival depended on making the birth rate the central issue of national health policy to avoid 'racial extinction'. Like many of his colleagues, he became disillusioned when Federal governments paid little heed to the N.H.M.R.C.'s public health objectives. He withdrew from public debate, playing no part in the battles between the British Medical Association and the Chifley government. He was by then the senior member of the N.H.M.R.C., but had lost interest in using the council as a vehicle for social reform.

Having been asked to report on the future of public health administration in New South Wales in 1941, Morris recommended that all functions should be concentrated in one department, under a minister for health. His report was implemented in 1942, but, to his disappointment, he was not made permanent head of the new department. He continued as director general and as president (from 1937) of the Board of Health; he also served as inspector general of mental hospitals, chaired numerous boards and committees, and was vice-president of the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies. Morris returned to psychiatric administration with little enthusiasm. After he retired in 1952, he continued to work as medical officer at the Reception House, Darlinghurst.

At his Mosman home, Morris enjoyed tennis, gardening and handicrafts. Suffering from a painful bone condition, he died of cardiac disease on 31 August 1957 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated with the forms of the Society of Friends. His son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the Great War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • C. J. Cummins, A History of Medical Administration in New South Wales, 1788-1973 (Syd, 1979)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1, 1938-75 (Syd, 1988)
  • J. A. Gillespie, The Price of Health (Melb, 1991)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Nov 1924, 20 Aug 1925, 17 Dec 1952.

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Citation details

James Gillespie, 'Morris, Emanuel Sydney (1888–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morris-emanuel-sydney-11170/text19901, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 August 2019.

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

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