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Sir Anthony Colling Brownless (1817–1897)

by K. F. Russell

This article was published:

Anthony Colling Brownless (1817-1897), by unknown photographer

Anthony Colling Brownless (1817-1897), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1123

Sir Anthony Colling Brownless (1817-1897), physician and educationist, was born on 19 January 1817, the only son of Anthony Brownless of Paynett's House and Bockingfold Manor near Goudhurst, Kent, England, and his wife Martha, née Austen; through his father he was related to the earls of Lauderdale. His early education was by private tutor and, being intended for the Anglican Church, by Rev. C. E. Smith, M.A., of Badlesmere, Kent. After some grounding in the classics he decided to study medicine and was apprenticed to Charles Wilks of Charing, Kent. His apprenticeship was prolonged when his right knee was severely injured by a horse rolling on him. In the summer of 1834, in an attempt to improve his health, he went to St Petersburg, Norway and Denmark and in 1835 to the United States and Canada. In 1836 he resumed his apprenticeship and then became a student at St Bartholomew's Hospital. After many delays due to illness, a further voyage to Portugal and Spain in 1837 and a long enforced rest in 1838 he graduated as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons on 26 March 1841 and as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in June. He began practice at Islington in 1842 and as assistant to John Painter Vincent at St Bartholomew's received training in surgery. After practice as a surgeon at 4 Albion Place, Lonsdale Square, London, in 1843-45, he went to Liège where he carried out postgraduate work in anatomy and pathology.

He returned to London in 1846, took the M.D. of St Andrews in 1847 and was elected physician to the Metropolitan Dispensary, Fore Street, and later to the Royal General Dispensary, Aldersgate Street. Because of ill health he resigned and retired temporarily from private practice; probably he was tuberculous. Almost certainly the state of his health made him decide to come to Australia, for he left Liverpool as medical officer in the Chaseley and arrived in Melbourne in December 1852. Appointed physician to the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum and a justice of the peace in 1853, he was elected physician to the Melbourne Hospital in 1854, retaining that position until 1866 when he became consulting physician. He also built up an extensive private practice. His health had fully recovered.

On 15 June 1855 Brownless was appointed a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne (M.D. ad eund., 1865), and at once devoted all his energies to the formation of a medical school; his first scheme for the institution of a faculty of medicine was presented to council in January 1857. After many frustrations over finance and government apathy, Brownless as chairman of the Medical School Committee obtained the necessary support and finance, and lectures to three students began on 3 March 1862. He had insisted, against considerable local opposition and a report from Professor James Paget, on adopting a five-year course of study. For this Brownless deserves the greatest praise, since at that time only Dublin, of all medical schools in the English speaking world, had a five-year course. A course of similar length was not introduced into Britain until 1892 and then many of the features of Melbourne's training were incorporated in it.

On 31 May 1858 Brownless was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne. During his twenty-nine years in this office his iron-willed determination was clearly marked on the administration of the university, for he controlled all committees and in particular assumed complete command of the medical school. In April 1887 Brownless was appointed chancellor. This post he had long desired though the council had earlier voted against him three times. He remained chancellor until his death.

Brownless had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1853 at Parramatta, New South Wales, and was active in its affairs, notably by his service on the Catholic Education Committee for some thirty-three years. In line with church policy, in 1866 he refused an invitation to sit on the royal commission on education. In a community in which relatively few Catholics held prominent posts Brownless was continually called on to represent his church's interests. Pope Pius IX conferred on him in 1870 the knighthood of the Order of St Gregory the Great and in 1883 Pope Leo XIII made him a knight commander of the Order of Pius.

For the government, Brownless sat in the 1862 commission on the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum and the 1879 commission on industrial and reformatory schools. In 1888 he was a commissioner for the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition.

In his earlier days in the colony he was an enthusiastic cricketer and for many years maintained at his own expense the best pack of hounds in Victoria. On 10 January 1884 he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and in 1888 received the honorary LL.D. from both St Andrews and Melbourne. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1888 and K.C.M.G. on 2 January 1893. He died at the university on 3 December 1897 and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery.

Brownless married twice: first, in 1842 at Brussels, Ellen, daughter of William Hawker, M.D., of Charing, Kent, sometime surgeon in the Grenadier Guards; she died in 1846 leaving two sons; second, in 1852 in Ireland, Anne Jane, daughter of Captain William Hamilton, Rifle Brigade, of Eden, County Donegal; she had three sons and three daughters and died in 1889.

Brownless was an outstanding university administrator and Melbourne was most fortunate that he was prepared to devote his time to its interests. His greatest achievement was the medical school; his far-seeing determination was responsible for its sound foundation and his iron rule ensured its success. His inflexibility of mind and dogged perseverance were all too obvious to contemporaries, although obscured at first sight by an air of venerable benevolence. After his death Paget, who had studied with Brownless at St Bartholomew's Hospital, wrote to Professor Harry Allen: 'I have never known a man so resolute in hard work under difficulties which ordinary men would at once have yielded to… I think there can have been no one to whom your University, now so happily prosperous, owes so much as to him'.

His portrait by John Longstaff was presented to the university in 1900 but lost in the Wilson Hall fire of 25 January 1952. The university Brownless Medical Library commemorates his name.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 2nd ed (Melb, 1882)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • University of Melbourne Medical School Jubilee (Melb, 1914)
  • V. Plarr, Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons (Lond, 1930)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), Brownless Memorial Supplement, vol 3, no 6, Sept 1898 (whole issue)
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 5 July 1890
  • Table Talk, 27 Dec 1895
  • K. F. Russell, History of the Melbourne Medical School (held by author)
  • Council minutes and Medical School letters (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

K. F. Russell, 'Brownless, Sir Anthony Colling (1817–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 June 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

Anthony Colling Brownless (1817-1897), by unknown photographer

Anthony Colling Brownless (1817-1897), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1123

Life Summary [details]


19 January, 1817


3 December, 1897 (aged 80)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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