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James George Beaney (1828–1891)

by Bryan Gandevia

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James George Beaney (1828-1891), by William Bardwell, 1880-88

James George Beaney (1828-1891), by William Bardwell, 1880-88

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H8909

James George Beaney (1828-1891), surgeon, politician and philanthropist, was born on 15 January 1828 in Canterbury, Kent, England, son of George Beney and his wife Sarah. Educated at Canterbury he served an apprenticeship with William J. Cooper, surgeon; he also studied, and possibly practised, pharmacy. A breakdown in health, probably tuberculosis, while studying medicine in Edinburgh required a long sea voyage, and in 1852 he migrated to Victoria where he lived with John Hood, M.L.C., and helped in his chemist's shop in Collins Street. His health did not improve and he returned to England in 1853 as surgeon in the Barrackpore. Resuming his studies he qualified at Edinburgh (M.R.C.S., 1855). Gazetted assistant surgeon to the 3rd Regiment, he served at Gibraltar and later as staff surgeon to the Turkish contingent in the Crimean war, appointments later the subject of recurring satirical comment and also of the libel action Beaney v. Fitzgerald 1863 in Melbourne. After returning to England he appears to have studied venereology in Paris and visited America as surgeon in emigrant ships before finally sailing for Melbourne in the Shooting Star. He arrived in 1857 and, after a period as locum tenens, acquired the practice of Dr John Maund when he died in 1858. Beaney rapidly established himself as a prominent surgeon, a position he maintained although he 'outlived many a calumny' in doing so.

Beaney was elected an honorary surgeon to the Melbourne Hospital in 1860. Except for a lapse in 1865-75, he continued in this appointment until his death; like others he spent large sums to ensure his re-election each four years, a pernicious system of election of medical staff by lay subscribers to the hospital not abolished until 1910. He continued his military associations as a surgeon in the Royal Victorian Artillery and as a foundation member and early benefactor of the Pipeclay Club, a forerunner of the Naval and Military Club. For a decade before his resignation in 1870 Beaney was a member of the Medical Society of Victoria, a body perhaps representing the medical 'establishment'. His conflicts with this society reached a peak in 1878-79 when Beaney revisited Britain, where he was welcomed, on a presumed authority from the Victorian chief secretary, as the representative of the medical profession in Victoria. This claim was vehemently denied in two printed circulars sent by the Medical Society of Victoria to all the leading medical organizations in the United Kingdom. Beaney was also a member of the Royal Society of Victoria and other scientific societies, as well as the Royal Irish Academy and the Melbourne Yorick Club.

Beaney's numerous publications began in 1859 with Original Contributions to the Practice of Conservative Surgery, one of the first medical books published in Australia. Although not favourably received locally, it was followed by about a dozen others, some in several editions, over the next twenty-five years, dealing in particular with disorders of sexual and genito-urinary function. Some were directed to an interested lay public, a probable factor in Beaney's resignation from the Victorian Medical Society. Shorter works related to the history of surgery (the first separate medico-historical publication in the Australian colonies), vaccination, childhood ailments and to clinical lectures to students, at a time when few were given, on such surgical topics as aneurysm and joint disease; some were concerned with professional and medico-legal controversies. Some thirty papers in various local medical journals appeared under his name, the most notable a series on anaesthesia. Unfortunately a lawsuit brought against Beaney in 1880 by his publisher and erstwhile publicity agent, Ferdinand Bailliere, revealed that some of this literary output was the work of an amanuensis; similar unchallenged assertions had been published in the Melbourne Medical Record in 1875.

Evaluation of Beaney's surgery is difficult. His claim to surgical originality probably cannot be substantiated, but a recent review of his urological publications suggests that he was informed on current practice. To the end of his life he failed to appreciate fully the principles of Listerism, which he claimed to have learnt in Britain in 1879, but at least, unlike some of his colleagues, he did not attend autopsies on the same day as he operated. The evidence of contemporary observers indicates that he was a bold surgeon, perhaps rash and rough at times, without the finesse and skill of Sir Thomas Fitzgerald and E. M. James, yet often successful when others less daring would have failed. For example, he twice operated successfully for aneurysm of the innominate artery, a hazardous procedure in which few surgeons could record success; he also had the courage to operate, unsuccessfully, to ligate the abdominal aorta. By contrast, in four remarkable inquests on patients dying after surgical operations, he was placed virtually in the position of having to defend himself against charges of incompetence. In three of these in 1875 the verdict was in his favour, although he was criticized for failing to adhere to the Melbourne Hospital's rule that consultation with other honorary surgeons must precede a major operation. The first inquest, in 1866, led to Beaney's trial for the murder of a barmaid, Mary Lewis, who had died following an allegedly illegal operation. The jury failed to agree, but at a second trial, in which Beaney's counsel, Butler Aspinall, called no witnesses for the defence but relied on his cross-examination and final address, Beaney was rightly acquitted. Later C. E. Reeves and David Thomas, both prominent medical practitioners, as well as Beaney himself, published strong criticisms of the unsatisfactory medical testimony for the Crown. In all these cases the evidence is not conclusive that Beaney's surgical skill and judgment were unsound, especially as a regrettable element of professional animosity, not rare then in medicine as in other fields, cannot be excluded. Academic recognition is indicated by Beaney's election as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in 1860 and his admission to the degree of M.D. (ad eund.) in the University of Melbourne in 1879; he also became M.D. in St Andrews University, and a licentiate of the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland in 1879. Of his medical, as distinct from surgical, practice, it is recorded only that he advocated cod-liver oil for pulmonary tuberculosis, and alcohol, especially champagne, for most disorders, both of which were then conventional therapeutic agents.

After unsuccessfully contesting an election for the Melbourne Province, Beaney was a member of the Victorian Legislative Council for the North Yarra Province in 1883-91. His most important political action was in 1886 to secure the establishment of a select committee, with himself as chairman, to inquire into the sanitary condition, construction and possible removal of the Melbourne Hospital. Public concern over the mortality and morbidity at the hospital had been aroused by articles in the lay press and by criticisms voiced by the city coroner, Dr Richard Youl. The committee's report vindicated the hospital in most respects, attributing the high mortality to the admission of moribund and phthisical patients rather than to infection acquired in the wards ('hospitalism'), as alleged by Youl. The suggestion that the hospital should be rebuilt on a new site close to the university, a recurring theme for over half a century until finally achieved, was rejected. However, in the face of public criticism that Beaney had unduly influenced the committee, and because the Legislative Council disagreed on the conclusions and the evidence leading to them, the committee's report was not formally adopted.

Beaney was described as a 'short, podgy man' with 'pale blue, rather shifty eyes', with his hair curiously upswept to either side of his head 'like a pair of horns'. His flamboyant dressing, embellished with diamond studs, diamond and ruby rings and a bejewelled gold watch with diamond pendant, made him an admirable subject for caricature. A lover of claret and champagne, he offered generous hospitality to his students and friends; he sometimes shared a jeroboam of champagne with his assistants after operating sessions. He lived in an elaborate house in Collins Street (later the Alexandra Club).  Beaney married Susannah Mary Griffiths (d.1879) on 28 March 1849 at the parish church, Llanvrechva, Wales; they had no children. Beaney died from a cerebral condition, complicating hepatic disease and gout, on 30 June 1891 in the manner and within five minutes of the time which he was said to have predicted almost a fortnight before. He was survived by a brother, George, and by a sister in Canterbury.

Beaney's will, although later criticized as not providing adequately for surviving relations, reflects his well-attested generosity and liberality to charitable and educational causes as well as his unashamed vanity. After endowing scholarships at medical schools in Melbourne and London, he bequeathed some £10,000 to the mayor and corporation of Canterbury to establish 'The Beaney Institute for the Education of the Working Man', the class from which Beaney probably arose, together with portraits and personalia which were to be displayed in the main hall of the building. The dean and chapter received £1000 for repairs to Canterbury Cathedral on condition that a memorial tablet, costing not more than £1200, was erected in it. After some difficulties legal and otherwise, these enterprises were successfully established; the institute now functions as a library with research interests in local history, and the memorial tablet is a beautifully executed representation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The residue of the estate of some £60,000 was distributed amongst the University of Melbourne and seven Melbourne hospitals and charities. A codicil in 1890 reversed his will of 1885 whereby after small bequests in Melbourne the residue went to Canterbury, a change suggesting that the vigorous Beaney and Melbourne's turbulent medical profession had finally come to terms.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ford, A Bibliography of James George Beaney (Syd, 1953)
  • K. S. Inglis, Hospital and Community (Melb, 1958)
  • C. Craig, ‘The Egregious Dr. Beaney of the Beaney scholarships’, Medical Journal of Australia, 6 May 1950, pp 593-98
  • B. Gandevia, ‘Some Aspects of the Life and Work of James George Beaney’, Medical Journal of Australia, 2 May 1953, pp 614-19
  • L. Murphy, ‘On Mr. Beaney and His Urological Writings and Experiences’, Medical Journal of Australia, 27 Feb 1960, pp 313-22
  • B. Gandevia, ‘Medico-Legal Crimes in Nineteenth Century Melbourne’, Proceedings of the Medico-Legal Society, vol 9, 1960-63, pp 145-67
  • Table Talk, 3 July 1891
  • Leader (Melbourne), 4 July 1891
  • Illustrated Australian News, 1 Aug 1891
  • documents and relics (Beaney Institute, Canterbury, England)
  • G. T. Howard manuscript (Victorian Medical Society, Melbourne).

Citation details

Bryan Gandevia, 'Beaney, James George (1828–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James George Beaney (1828-1891), by William Bardwell, 1880-88

James George Beaney (1828-1891), by William Bardwell, 1880-88

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H8909

Life Summary [details]


15 January, 1828
Canterbury, Kent, England


30 June, 1891 (aged 63)

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