Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Borthwick (1860–1924)

by Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold

This article was published:

Thomas Borthwick (1860-1924), medical practitioner, was born on 13 January 1860 at Peebles, Scotland, son of William Borthwick, shepherd, and his wife Janet, née Hudson. He graduated in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1881. After brief medical practice in Scotland and a short stay in South Africa, he arrived in Adelaide in 1883 and practised at Kensington. From 1885 he was medical officer of health for Kensington, Norwood, St Peters and Burnside. His monograph, A Contribution to the Demography of South Australia, earned him an M.D. degree in 1891 from Edinburgh University, where that year he began a course in practical sanitary science. He returned to Adelaide with sufficient equipment to fit up a bacteriological laboratory, possibly the first of its kind in Australia, at his home.

In 1894 Borthwick was selected for the new position of honorary bacteriologist at the Adelaide Children's Hospital and his equipment was transferred to its new Thomas Elder laboratory. In London in 1895 he studied the anti-toxin treatment of diphtheria under Dr. G. Sims Woodhead, and he probably visited the Pasteur Institute in Paris to study the control of diphtheria. On his return home, the new treatment was adopted by the Children's Hospital and by the medical profession in general. In addition to diagnostic work in the hospital, he lectured 'with infinite patience and tact' to nurses on hygiene and bacteriology. His work with diphtheria had shown him that the period of contagion lasted much longer than previously supposed and convalescents were subsequently detained until all fear of infection had passed. In 1899 the University of Adelaide made him examiner in hygiene and lecturer in bacteriology, a post he retained until 1920. In 1902 he was offered the position of honorary bacteriologist at the Adelaide Hospital and he became consultant there in 1911. He resigned from the Children's Hospital as its emphases shifted from extensive to intensive medicine, but continued to advise it on sanitary matters.

Borthwick brought about the Health Act of 1898, which introduced notification of infectious diseases and established a Central Board of Health; but he was also one of the first to recognize the Act's practical weaknesses. In 1900-24 he was the part-time medical officer of health for the city of Adelaide, the corporation having acknowledged the need for a qualified person. He was also health officer for the Metropolitan Dairies Board (later the Metropolitan County Board of Food and Drugs) and was appointed consultant medical officer to the Metropolitan Abattoirs Board in 1913. He introduced inspection of dairies and licensing of milk vendors, instituted a mother and child health service, showed the need for a separate infectious diseases hospital, and regularized the inspection of insanitary dwellings. In 1922 he initiated a three-year campaign to eliminate the city's mosquitoes by compulsorily screening domestic water-tanks and treating breeding-grounds in the River Torrens. He also suggested the creation of a Greater Adelaide area to secure uniform action on such matters as hygienic food supplies. He never hesitated to express his opinion in the most emphatic and unequivocal manner and wrote several highly respected papers on bacteriology and public health.

Borthwick was amiable, but shy and retiring: his work was hence inadequately publicly recognized. Family tradition has it that he had left South Africa after losing a breach of promise case. On 22 April 1885 he married Mary Borthwick at Norwood. She died four years later aged 28, leaving a three-year-old son, who died in 1903. On 24 March 1891 Borthwick married Annie Bucephala Thompson Giffen. He was disappointed in his public life: when the presidency of the Central Board of Health fell vacant, it was, for political reasons, bestowed elsewhere. Borthwick suffered from cancer of the throat, but remained at his post until six weeks before his death at Largs Bay on 11 March 1924. Survived by his wife, he was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 5 Apr 1924
  • Health, May 1924
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Mar 1924
  • Medical Officer of Health, Reports 1900-01 to 1923-24 (Adelaide City Council)
  • Adelaide Children's Hospital, Annual Report, 1894-1924 (State Records of South Australia)
  • (Royal) Adelaide Hospital, Annual Report, 1898-1924 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold, 'Borthwick, Thomas (1860–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 May 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

Life Summary [details]


13 January, 1860
Peebles, Peeblesshire, Scotland


11 March, 1924 (aged 64)
Largs Bay, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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