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Sir Samuel Roy Burston (1888–1960)

by Brian Clerehan

This article was published:

Samuel Roy Burston (1888-1960), by unknown photographer

Samuel Roy Burston (1888-1960), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 020404

Sir Samuel Roy Burston (1888-1960), physician and army officer, was born on 21 March 1888 in Melbourne, fourth child of James Burston, maltster, and his wife Marianne, née McBean, both Victorian born. The family lived at Windarra, a bluestone house in Flinders Street, then at Carrical, in Mason Street, Hawthorn, from where Roy rode a pony to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. In 1900-05 he was a bugler in the Victorian and Australian military forces, but a heart murmur, detected in his childhood, precluded a full-time army career. Graduating from the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1910), he became a resident medical officer in the Adelaide Children's Hospital. In 1911-12 Burston was based in the Northern Territory as a medical inspector of Aborigines and on his return practised privately at Mile End. He married Helen Elizabeth Culross (d.1959) on 16 April 1913 in St Michael's Anglican Church, Mitcham.

In October 1912 Burston had been appointed captain, (Royal Australian) Army Medical Corps. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 26 March 1915 and embarked for Egypt in June. As a major in the 7th Field Ambulance, he served at Gallipoli from September until November when he was evacuated to England with enteric fever. After brief periods in Egypt and England, he was posted to the 11th Field Ambulance and moved to France in November 1916. Burston was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his supervision of an advanced dressing-station during the battle of Messines, Belgium, in June 1917. Later that month he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and made senior medical officer, Australian General Base Depot, Le Havre, France; command of the 1st Australian Convalescent Depot from April 1918 added to his responsibilities. Promoted temporary colonel in November, he took charge of the 3rd Australian General Hospital before assuming in April 1919 the assistant-directorship of medical services for A.I.F. depots in Britain. He was mentioned in dispatches and appointed C.B.E. that year.

Burston's A.I.F. appointment terminated in Adelaide on 7 March 1920. Resuming his civilian practice, he maintained his association with the A.M.F. as deputy-director of medical services, 4th Military District. In 1928 he won the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for a surf rescue at Victor Harbor. A member of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh (fellow 1937), and an honorary physician at (Royal) Adelaide Hospital from 1933 (honorary consultant physician 1947), he was a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1938. His military and medical reputations ensured his appointment on 13 October 1939 as assistant-director of medical services, 6th Division, A.I.F. He embarked for the Middle East in April 1940.

On the staff of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, Burston was successively deputy-director (April) of medical services, I Australian Corps, and director (November) of the A.I.F.'s medical services in the Middle East. He was promoted major general on 16 February 1941. Frequently seen at the front, he anticipated difficulties and took corrective action. Blamey relied on him, and in July used his report on the health of Australian troops in the Tobruk garrison as grounds for the early relief of the 9th Division. For his services in the Middle East, Burston was appointed C.B. (1942).

Back in Australia, by May 1942 he was director-general of medical services at Land Headquarters, Melbourne, and chairman of the central medical co-ordination committee. His handling of the battle against malaria in the South-West Pacific Area was his greatest achievement. Ably supported by Brigadier (Sir) Neil Fairley, he ensured that measures originally proposed by Colonel (Sir) Edward Ford were thoroughly implemented. In March 1943 Burston adopted Fairley's suggestion and established the combined advisory committee on tropical medicine, hygiene and sanitation. Burston's appeal to Blamey led to the establishment of the L.H.Q. Medical Research Unit at Cairns, Queensland, 'one of the most important steps of the war taken in Australia in relation to malaria'.

Burston's personality and experience contributed to his success as medical head of the army, as did his ability to select and direct the activities of outstanding subordinates. While his advisers (especially his friend Fairley) were often technically superior to him, Burston was their natural leader and they knew it. He was persona grata to senior members of the A.I.F. Because he could be trusted to keep a confidence, he was asked to be an intermediary in personal conflicts: the prime example had been Blamey's request that he should intercede with Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell whom Blamey relieved of command in September 1942. A large and impressive figure, with blue eyes and a fair complexion, Burston looked very much the soldier; his sandy hair earned him the nickname 'Ginger'. He was 'a man of the world, fond of parties, good food and wine', and played tennis and golf. While he liked the trappings of office, he was charming and approachable, and had a particularly happy family life.

Relinquishing his appointment in January 1948, Burston retired to Melbourne. In 1944 he had been appointed a knight of the Order of St John (chief commissioner in 1945-57 and receiver-general of the Priory in Australia from 1957), and in 1945 became honorary physician to King George VI and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1952. The office of honorary colonel (1952-57) of the R.A.A.M.C. was the distinction that probably pleased him most. Sir Samuel had long been interested in horses: a modest punter and owner, he was chairman (1952-60) of the Moonee Valley Racing Club. He was active in the Australian Red Cross Society and other service organizations, and a director of several companies, including David Syme & Co. Ltd. Survived by his daughter and two sons, Burston died on 21 August 1960 at South Yarra; after a military funeral, he was cremated. Among his portraits, one by (Sir) William Dargie is in the family's possession; another, by (Sir) Ivor Hele, is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of the War (Canb, 1952)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1 (Syd, 1988)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 4 Feb 1961
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brian Clerehan, 'Burston, Sir Samuel Roy (1888–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Samuel Roy Burston (1888-1960), by unknown photographer

Samuel Roy Burston (1888-1960), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 020404