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Newton, Sir Wilberforce Stephen (Bill) (1890–1956)

by James Smibert

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

Sir Wilberforce Stephen (Bill) Newton (1890-1956), physician, was born on 27 December 1890 at East Malvern, Melbourne, third son of Victorian-born parents Hibbert Henry Newton, civil servant, and his wife Clara Violet, née Stephen. (Sir) Alan Newton was his eldest brother. Wilberforce, known as Bill, attended Haileybury College, Brighton, where he was school captain and dux in 1907, and played in the first XI. While studying medicine at the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1915; M.D., 1921), he represented the university in hockey and Brighton in the Victorian Football Association.

Following his graduation, Newton responded to Lord Kitchener's call for one hundred Australian doctors to aid the war effort. He sailed for England on 16 June 1915 and was appointed temporary lieutenant, Royal Army Medical Corps. Serving on the Western Front, he was promoted captain in 1916. He scorned the incompetence of senior British army medical officers and, after being called a 'bloody convict', 'altered the shape of a British officer's face', giving him 'the biggest black eye' one onlooker had ever seen. His diary described the mud, slush and shelling, the difficulty of lifting wounded men from the trenches, and his lucky escapes from injury. On 30 May 1917 he relinquished his commission.

In September 1917 Newton was appointed a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne. He worked as medical superintendent for sixteen months and in 1919 took charge of the hospital's response to the influenza epidemic. Joining the Alfred's honorary medical staff, he became a clinical assistant (1920), physician to out-patients (1924) and physician to in-patients (1933). He was thorough in taking his patients' medical histories and in conducting clinical examinations, and he expected others to maintain the same standards. Always a gentleman, as a clinical teacher he believed in the maxim, 'example is better than precept'. At St Cuthbert's Presbyterian Church, Brighton, on 28 July 1926 he had married Margaret Windeyer Macansh, grand-daughter of John Donald Macansh.

Newton served (1937-56) on the Alfred Hospital's board of management. Having been involved in the Baker Medical Research Institute from its foundation in 1926, he cherished a vision of the Alfred as an influential teaching institution: he was a driving force behind the introduction of clinical tutors, and became involved with clinical research and thoracic surgery. He was a member (1934-48) of the faculty of medicine at the University of Melbourne and acting Stewart lecturer in medicine (1941, 1946). A foundation fellow (1938), council-member (1944-54) and vice-president (1950-52) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, he chaired (1950) its Victorian committee. He was also a member of the Consultative Council on Tuberculosis, the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria and the Melbourne Medical Postgraduate Committee.

In 1946 Newton was elected a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians. He retired from the Alfred in 1948 because of ill health. In 1950 he was knighted. Survived by his wife and four sons, Sir Wilberforce died of coronary vascular disease on 3 October 1956 in a private hospital at Fitzroy and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1 (Syd, 1988)
  • J. C. Trinca, Neither Hypocrite Nor Saint (Melb, 1994)
  • Alfred Healthcare Group Heritage Committee, Alfred Hospital, Faces and Places (Melb, 1996)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 26 Jan 1957, p 122
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 June 1944, 4 Oct 1956
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

James Smibert, 'Newton, Sir Wilberforce Stephen (Bill) (1890–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/newton-sir-wilberforce-stephen-bill-11231/text20025, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 November 2014.

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

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