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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Aaron, Isaac (1804–1877)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Isaac Aaron (1804-1877), medical practitioner, was born in Birmingham, England, and educated at local schools and at St Bartholomew's Hospital where he qualified as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1826 and as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons a year later. He then returned to Birmingham to practise. In 1831, when an epidemic of cholera extended to within eight miles (13 km) of Birmingham, he was much impressed that there were no cases in the city, which had a good water supply and sewerage. The epidemic led to the establishment of a Central Board of Health and local boards, to one of which in Birmingham, Aaron was appointed. Aaron, like his friend (Sir) Henry Parkes, was active in radical political movements before and after the Reform Act of 1832.

Aaron sailed for Australia in 1838 and was registered by the New South Wales Medical Board next year. He practised at Raymond Terrace on the Hunter River but had to supplement his income by farming. After seven years he went to Sydney, where, after occasionally contributing to the monthly Australian Medical Journal, which first appeared in August 1846, he became its editor in December, and in May 1847 bought the journal. In its editorials he criticized the staff of the Sydney Infirmary, the verdicts of non-medical coroners, the Benevolent Society, and Medical Board. He himself was criticized for his onslaught on those who made their patients 'drunk' with ether before an operation. The journal ceased publication in December 1847, as he had too little time to spare for it and too little support by his colleagues.

In 1848 Aaron gave an address at the School of Arts on 'Diseases of Towns'. In 1853 he told a parliamentary committee that quarantine alone would not prevent infectious diseases, or 'the kind of disease determined by the peculiar meteorological conditions at the time'. He claimed that sanitary measures were 'infinitely more' effective. Demands for improvement of the insanitary conditions of Sydney, as of other cities, were increasing. In September 1856 Aaron addressed the Philosophical Society of New South Wales (later the Royal Society), which he had helped to revive in 1855, on sanitary reform. The address, published in the Sydney Magazine of Science and Art, February 1858, gave revolting details of contemporary conditions. In April 1857 the Sydney City Council appointed him health officer at a salary of £400 with the right of private practice. Here he was well situated to work for the improved sanitation of what he described as the 'City of Cesspools', but few of his proposals were carried out, and in March 1859 when the council reduced his salary to £100 he resigned.

Later that year before a parliamentary committee inquiring into conditions of the working class, Aaron condemned the foul quarters in which the majority were herded together, and deplored the high infant mortality. The gold rush had been a curse to many people, he averred, because husbands had deserted their wives and families, who had then resorted to drink and prostitution.

When the Volunteer Force was formed to assist local defence Aaron joined as a medical officer and served for twelve years. He and his colleagues in the volunteers formed an association that was the first organized body of medical men in the colony, and it established the New South Wales Medical Gazette (1870-75) with Aaron as one of the three editors during its first year.

Meanwhile, in 1858 the Australian Medical Association had been founded and Aaron was its secretary for several years; it ceased to exist in 1869. His last official post was medical officer to Darlinghurst Gaol and the Reception House, where his work was often criticized. In one case his alleged impatience and lack of sympathy led to demands for a parliamentary inquiry. Parkes refused this and defended his old friend who, he said, had a brusque and rough manner but carried out his duties as a prison surgeon efficiently and well.

Aaron was a leading Freemason and, at the time of his death on 17 August 1877 at his home in William Street, was president of the Unitarian Church in Sydney.

Dr A. M. McIntosh wrote of him in 1957 that he was 'one of the outstanding professional figures of his time, a forthright, independent character who always saw the path of duty clearly before him and followed it unswervingly … Despite his natural asperity of manner [he] was regarded with great affection by the few who contrived to know him really well'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. McCallum, ‘A Pioneer Medical Journalist and Health Officer’, Health (Canberra), vol 5, no 1, Jan 1927, pp 1-5
  • A. M. McIntosh, ‘Dr. Isaac Aaron’, Medical Journal of Australia, 5 Oct 1957, pp 494-98.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

'Aaron, Isaac (1804–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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