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Verco, Sir Joseph Cooke (1851–1933)

by R. V. Southcott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Joseph Cooke Verco (1851-1933), by Hammer & Co., 1919

Joseph Cooke Verco (1851-1933), by Hammer & Co., 1919

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3797

Sir Joseph Cooke Verco (1851-1933), physician and conchologist, was born on 1 August 1851 at Fullarton, Adelaide, sixth child of James Crabb Verco, builder, and his wife Ann, née Cooke, both from Cornwall, England. A serious boy, Joseph made a museum of shells in his backyard. He attended J. L. Young's Adelaide Educational Institution (1863-67) and worked briefly for the South Australian railways before entering the Collegiate School of St Peter. Enrolling at the University of London (M.B., 1875; M.D., 1876; B.S., 1877), he won four gold medals. He was admitted as licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (1875) and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (1877), and became a midwifery assistant at St Bartholomew's Hospital (1877).

Returning to South Australia, Verco registered as a general practitioner in 1878, but gradually specialized as a physician and proved a skilled diagnostician. He was one of the earliest doctors in Adelaide to use a case-records system: when this became onerous, he learned shorthand. Honorary physician at the Adelaide Hospital and honorary medical officer at the Adelaide Children's Hospital, he attempted in 1888 to remove a hydatid of the brain in one of the first of such operations in Australia. With (Sir) Edward Stirling, Verco had founded the University of Adelaide's medical school in 1885; he was a precise, if unexciting, lecturer in medicine (1887-1915) and also a clinical teacher at the Adelaide Hospital; his students found him reserved, punctilious and severe, and nicknamed him 'holy Joe'.

Despite an attack of enteric fever, in 1887 Verco presided over the first Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia which was held in Adelaide. He was a foundation member and president (1886 and 1914-19) of the South Australian branch of the British Medical Association and a council-member of the University of Adelaide (1895-1902 and 1919-33). His most important publications were his entries in T. C. Allbutt's A System of Medicine (London, 1897, 1907) and his review (1879) of South Australian statistics on consumption.

A devout member of the Churches of Christ, Dr Verco was a Sunday School superintendent and a temperance advocate; he gave generously to the Kermode Street Church in North Adelaide where he worshipped. He also wrote hymns and religious poetry. The flowing black beard of his youth was later trimmed to a point; his grave dignity was matched by his formal dress. On 13 April 1911 at North Adelaide he married Mary Isabella Mills. Recognized as the city's leading physician, he was knighted on his retirement next year.

Verco revived his boyhood love of the sea. Using his brother William's ketch, he learned the techniques of dredging and—often with his nephews—collected shells, corals, crabs, sponges and other marine life. W. G. Torr and Stirling sometimes accompanied Verco whose gifts of shells, specimens, books, apparatus and money to the South Australian Museum eventually helped to form one of the world's outstanding collections. He hired tugs for longer trips along the Great Australian Bight and off the coast of Western Australia. From these journeys, he published papers in the transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia (1895-1918), in the records of the museum (1922-28) and in the proceedings of the Malacological Society of London (1931). Verco kept extensive diaries and was moved to write at least one love poem; the manuscript of his sea travels was later edited by Bernard Cotton as Combing the Southern Seas (1935). The South Australian Naturalist (August 1933) included a bibliography of Verco's work in malacology. Honorary conchologist at the museum from 1914, he methodically and succinctly described 169 new species and subspecies. A fish, a crustacean and a number of molluscs were named after him.

President of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1903-21, Verco presented £1000 to found its research and endowment fund. He donated £5000 in 1926 to the Medical Sciences Club of South Australia to establish the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science and supported many other institutions, financially and administratively, among them the Adelaide Children's Hospital and the Queen Victoria Convalescent Home. Survived by his wife, Sir Joseph died childless at his North Terrace home on 29 July 1933 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. He is commemorated in the Verco Theatre at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide (with a bronze portrait plaque), and in the Verco Ward, Royal Adelaide Hospital. In 1928 the Royal Society of South Australia struck the Sir Joseph Verco medal for distinguished scientific investigations carried out by its members.

Select Bibliography

  • H. R. Taylor, The History of Churches of Christ in South Australia, 1846-1959 (Adel, 1959)
  • P. W. Verco, Masons, Millers and Medicine (Adel, 1976)
  • Lancet, 12 Aug 1933
  • British Medical Journal, 12 Aug, 16 Sept 1933
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 16 Sept 1933
  • Malacological Society (London), Proceedings, 15 Nov 1933
  • South Australiana, 2, no 2, Sept 1963
  • A. A. Lendon, The Medical School of South Australia (1885-1935) (typescript, State Library of South Australia)
  • J. Ashton on Dr J. C. Verco (Personalities Remembered, ABC radio script, State Library of South Australia)
  • Sir J. C. Verco's diaries and medical notes (State Library of South Australia)
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • South Australia Museum Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. V. Southcott, 'Verco, Sir Joseph Cooke (1851–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/verco-sir-joseph-cooke-8914/text15663, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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