Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richard Arthur (1865–1932)

by Michael Roe

This article was published:

Richard Arthur, by Leighton Studios, n.d

Richard Arthur, by Leighton Studios, n.d

State Library of New South Wales

Richard Arthur (1865-1932), social reformer and medical practitioner, was born on 25 October 1865 at Aldershot, England, son of Rev. David Arthur, Church of Scotland chaplain to the army, and his wife Isabella, née Simpson. He was educated at Dover College, then at the universities of St Andrews (M.A., 1885) and Edinburgh (M.B., Ch.M., 1888; M.D., 1891). He practised in Edinburgh's slums, but soon fell ill from typhoid fever. He visited Australia and worked with J. B. Nash at Wallsend, New South Wales. On 19 March 1890 at Coolangatta he married Jessie Sinclair, daughter of David Bruce, a Presbyterian minister.

The couple travelled to Europe; in 1890-91 Arthur studied hypnotism in France and wrote a thesis on its therapeutic uses for his Edinburgh doctorate. He returned to medical missionary work, now in London, but again his health suffered and late in 1891 the Arthurs went to Sydney. He made his home at Mosman, where he practised, and made a comfortable living, his main interests being the eye, ear-nose-and-throat, and dental work. He moved his practice to Macquarie Street about 1900 and served as an honorary to the Royal North Shore Hospital and Sydney Hospital. Hypnosis retained his sympathy, and he used it in nervous and other cases. He was a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1917-20 and 1927-31 and of Sydney Hospital in 1924-32.

Always busy in public affairs, in 1892-93 Arthur worked towards creating a political faction devoted to temperance and other moral reforms. At the 1894 election his energies shifted to the Free Trade and Land Reform Association, on the radical fringe of support for (Sir) George Reid. Arthur concentrated on preaching moral purity in the next years, and he was also fairly active against the South African War. In 1904 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Middle Harbour, as a Liberal and Reform candidate with temperance and Protestant backing. He stayed in parliament as a non-Labor member throughout his life, representing North Shore in 1920-27 and Mosman in 1927-32. Most of his ideas and causes persisted over the years, but their emphasis fluctuated. He worked through parliament, pressure groups, and the written word. His prose was clear and sharp, but his personal impact was nondescript or even comical.

Early in the century Arthur was a prime advocate of Australia's need for defence against Japan. In mid-1907 he urged the Commonwealth government to invite the American fleet to Australia, and ever claimed that he originated this idea. Apart from building armed forces, he argued, Australia should sacrifice luxury in order to subsidize migration and closer settlement. From 1905 he was founding president of the Immigration League of Australasia; some notoriety attached to his encouraging southern Europeans to settle tropical Australia.

Arthur fully supported World War 1, but modified his martial enthusiasm. Instead he concentrated on the welfare of returned servicemen, especially by seeking to provide them with good, cheap homes. During the war, he also gave much care to the problems of venereal disease and chaired a select committee on its prevalence in 1915-16; the pertinent New South Wales Act of 1918, providing for notification and treatment, was largely his work.

From 1916 Arthur became well known as Australia's pioneer advocate of child endowment. His particular stresses were that endowment should be given for all children without a means test, and from taxation on luxury and profit. He became very aware in the 1920s of the extent and effects of poverty in Sydney, while remaining sympathetic to rural needs and helping to inspire the Country Women's Association of Australia (1922). He preached simplicity in all things, especially diet, praising milk and fruit as elixirs of life. As chairman of the royal commission on lunacy law and administration in 1923, Arthur (a long-time eugenicist) urged special training and institutions for defectives. He was much readier than most public figures to discuss sexual matters and birth control.

Earlier in the decade Arthur was at odds with National Party leadership, but in 1927 he became minister for public health under (Sir) Thomas Bavin. The oncoming depression restricted his plans, but the Health Department gave increased attention to venereal disease, tuberculosis, and maternal and baby welfare. New legislation created the Hospitals Commission, the Milk Board, and the Board of Optometrical Registration. The first two Acts did not altogether represent his own views, however, and he failed to carry a dearly cherished mental defectives bill. Ill health weakened his ministerial performance.

In opposition from November 1930, Arthur concentrated on helping the unemployed. Land settlement still seemed to him the country's prime need. The response to his death from cancer on 21 May 1932 showed that 'the Little Doctor' was held in real, if somewhat patronizing, affection. He was cremated with Anglican rites, and was survived by his wife, son and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £9711.

Select Bibliography

  • P. H. Douglas, Wages and the Family (Chicago, 1925)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 16 July 1932
  • R. Arthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Arthur, Richard (1865–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Arthur, by Leighton Studios, n.d

Richard Arthur, by Leighton Studios, n.d

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]


25 October, 1865
Aldershot, Hampshire, England


21 May, 1932 (aged 66)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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