Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ramsay, Sir John (1872–1944)

by Ida Birchall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir John Ramsay (1872-1944), surgeon, was born on 26 December 1872 at Glasgow, Scotland, fourth son of John Ramsay, and his wife Margaret, née Thomson. In 1878 the family migrated to Melbourne. A brilliant student, John junior attended Wesley College on a scholarship from Prahran Primary School and in 1893 graduated M.B., B.S. from the University of Melbourne with the Beaney scholarship in pathology.

After a year as resident medical officer at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital and some months in Auckland, New Zealand, Ramsay was appointed house surgeon at the Launceston General Hospital, Tasmania, where he greatly benefited from the teaching of the innovative surgeon-superintendent, F. N. Drake. He succeeded Drake in 1898, having shown an extraordinary aptitude for surgery and a special interest in X-rays, to which tissue scarring on his face and hands later bore evidence.

In Australia the development of the new surgery which followed the discoveries of Lister was being pioneered by a small group of doctors in the main teaching hospitals. Ramsay, in a remote hospital, was exceptional in having his work recognized as of a comparable standard. Graduating M.S. from the University of Melbourne in 1902, he visited leading overseas medical centres and lectured frequently within Australia. He published some twenty-four papers, mainly between 1898 and 1912, including a discussion of his treatment of hydatid disease. In 1906 he performed the first successful resuscitation of the heart by massage in Australia, opening the thorax of a patient who had clinically died during operation.

Meticulous in his post-operative care of patients, Ramsay was interested in nurse training. He was also a gifted administrator and in 1906-07 raised funds by public subscription for a new operating theatre which included modern plant for purifying and filtering the air. From 1912 he was in private practice at St Margaret's, a hospital which he designed and built himself, and later had consulting-rooms at Nelumie in town. But he retained close ties with the Launceston General Hospital, as honorary consulting surgeon in 1912-17 and 1925-44 and as member of the board of management from 1929; as chairman from 1933 he oversaw reorganization and the building of a new hospital.

During World War I Ramsay was major in charge of surgery at the Hornsey Military Hospital, Launceston, later the 12th Australian General Hospital, and served on many military boards. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1924. President of the Tasmanian branch of the British Medical Association in 1925, he was a founder fellow in 1927 of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons. He was chairman of the Northern Tasmanian division of the St John Ambulance Association for seventeen years and was appointed commander brother of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1937. He also held executive positions with the Medical Council of Tasmania, Crippled Children's Association, Anti-Cancer Campaign and Red Cross Society. He was first president of the Launceston Rotary Club (1924), president of the Launceston Club, first chairman of the Equity Trustees Co. of Tasmania and the Goliath Portland Cement Co., and director of the board of the Kiwi Polish Co. which was founded by his brother William.

A talented sportsman, Ramsay represented Tasmania at cricket, was particularly fond of golf and excelled at billiards. He had a keen sense of humour and the sound of his laughter was long remembered on the Launceston golf links. He was also president of the Tasmanian Aero Club and vice-president of the Royal Automobile Association of Tasmania.

Readily approachable and kind, Ramsay brought not only expertise but an air of confidence to the sickroom. He was knighted in 1939 for 'services to surgery', the first Launcestonian and the first medical man in Tasmania to be so honoured. He died at Ruglen, Launceston, on 6 February 1944, survived by his wife Ella Elizabeth Pegus, née Dudley, whom he had married on 1 October 1913 in Sydney, and by their three sons and two daughters. He was cremated.

The Sir John Ramsay Memorial Library at the Launceston General Hospital was established in his memory in 1944. A portrait by his brother Hugh is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Kenny (ed), The Founders of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (Melb, 1984)
  • C. Craig, Launceston General Hospital (Hob, 1963)
  • I. Howie-Willis, A Century for Australia (Canb, 1983)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 25 Dec 1943, and for list of publications, 25 Mar 1944
  • Examiner (Launceston), 7 Feb 1944.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Ida Birchall, 'Ramsay, Sir John (1872–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ramsay-sir-john-8151/text14245, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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