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North, Edgar Alexander (1896–1970)

by Anthony Proust

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

Edgar Alexander North (1896-1970), medical scientist, was born on 12 February 1896 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Alexander North, architect, and his wife Lucy Mariannie Hamilton, née Morgan. Edgar excelled at English in his years at Launceston Church Grammar School. He entered Trinity College, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1923; M.D., 1948), but interrupted his studies and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 4 April 1916. Wounded in 1917 while serving on the Western Front with the 38th Battalion, he saw out the war, returned to Australia and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 26 April 1919. He worked as a resident medical officer (1923-24) at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, before being introduced to psychiatry at the Hospital for the Insane, Sunbury. On 26 June 1924 at Trinity College chapel he married with Anglican rites Jean Alice Cranstoun Andrew. While employed as a medical officer (1925-28) at the Repatriation Mental Hospital, Bundoora, in his spare hours he practised at the Alfred as a physician to out-patients.

Joining the Commonwealth Department of Health in May 1928, North was briefly based at Port Pirie, South Australia. He was appointed medical officer in charge of the Commonwealth health laboratories at Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1929 and at Bendigo, Victoria, in 1935. Transferred (1938) to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories at Parkville, Melbourne, of which F. G. Morgan was director, North was to be promoted deputy-director and to succeed E. V. Keogh in 1950 as chief of the research division.

During World War II North was involved in the manufacture of smallpox vaccine, and of tetanus toxoid which was of critical importance for the immunization of servicemen and women. With Keogh and others, he developed a more efficient vaccine against pertussis (whooping cough): this project formed the subject of his M.D. thesis. North also worked on staphylococcal toxins. He took a leading role in the production and distribution in Australia of Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine to prevent tuberculosis. In the early 1950s he was a pioneer in introducing triple antigen vaccine (against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus). He published more than forty papers in these areas.

An avid reader and regular attender of orations and lectures, North was regarded by his colleagues as being 'an erudite and courtly gentleman', quietly spoken and considerate. To some, he was the archetypal 'absent-minded professor'. A young scientist once saw him 'driving his motorcar, at its usual sedate pace, for several hundred yards along the footpath after leaving C.S.L., obviously engrossed in some intellectual problem and blissfully unaware that he was not on the road'. North was active in Legacy and in his local Anglican church. Because of the importance attached to vaccine production, he had been rejected for the A.I.F. in World War II, but had served in the Volunteer Defence Corps.

North was a member (1950) and fellow (1956) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and a foundation member (1956) of the College of Pathologists of Australia. On his retirement in 1961, he returned to Tasmania, cultivated his garden and developed a system of 'trickle irrigation'. He died on 4 March 1970 at Launceston and was cremated; his wife and three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1, 1938-75 (Syd, 1988)
  • A. H. Brogan, Committed to Saving Lives (Melb, 1990)
  • Commonwealth Serum Laboratories Archives, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

Anthony Proust, 'North, Edgar Alexander (1896–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/north-edgar-alexander-11255/text20075, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 December 2014.

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

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