Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kearsey Cannan (1815–1894)

by Douglas Gordon

This article was published:

Kearsey Cannan (1815-1894), medical practitioner, was born in London, son of David Cannan, surgeon, and his wife Catherine. He was apprenticed to Dr Wildash of Kent, and took his M.R.C.S. in 1837. He arrived at Sydney in 1840, visited New Zealand and returned to Sydney where in 1842 he married Mary Elizabeth Siddins. Next year they went to Brisbane where their period of residence almost spanned the years between the beginning of free settlement in 1842 and Federation.

Cannan was not, as often claimed, the first private practitioner in Queensland, but he holds that honour for Brisbane. In his first years there he and David Ballow, a salaried medical officer, were the only two practitioners. The hospital was then directly supported by the government. After this support ceased early in 1848 Cannan was an active campaigner for the establishment of a 'free' institution. It came into being late that year and he was associated with it either as a visiting or consulting surgeon for the rest of his life. Contrary to legend he was not the hero who attended typhus patients from the Emigrant after Ballow died in 1850, though he was a member of the board of inquiry which paid brief visits to the ship in quarantine at Dunwich. In the following years he held several part-time official posts: public vaccinator, medical officer to the gaol, member and later president of the Medical Board and coroner. In 1864 when a lunatic asylum was established at Woogaroo (Goodna) he was appointed its first full-time medical superintendent. Probably too easygoing to be concerned with the minutiae of office routine, he was a muddling administrator and was replaced in 1868 after one of those unsavoury inquiries which have tended to bedevil mental hospital administration. This setback did not seem to diminish his personal repute as a medical practitioner and citizen, for he was immediately appointed to the asylum staff as a visiting surgeon. Thereafter he lived at Hodgson Terrace, on the corner of Margaret and George Streets, and there conducted a successful practice. According to Spencer Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisbane, 1927), 'many of his patients were on the free list. Rather a philanthropist than a money maker'. Hard-working and reasonably competent, he tackled whatever major surgical emergencies came his way and with as much success as anyone else of his times. He had begun practice before general anaesthesia and antiseptics were discovered and lived to see large developments in surgery. Highly respected and well loved as the doyen of Queensland's doctors, he won a place on the honour roll of the local medical association.

Outside his professional affairs Cannan gave active encouragement to sports and their organization, particularly cricket, horse-racing, boating and billiards. He was prominent in the Australian Mutual Provident Society and in other community activities, but was not of the stuff from which evangelizers are made. Though readily accepted as part of the 'squatter establishment', his small contribution to politics was that of a practical humanist, who by virtue of his tolerant, kindly and attractive personality made an early Australian community a little more civilized and enjoyable. Aged 79 he died from bronchitis at his home on 20 August 1894 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Toowong cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two of their four daughters. His descendants, in a similarly reasonable and unobtrusive way, continued his substantial contribution to the development of Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Medical Gazette, 13 (1894) 325
  • E. S. Jackson, ‘Historical Notes From the Records in the Brisbane Hospital, 1825-1850’, Medical Journal of Australia, 24 June 1922, pp 685-90
  • D. Gordon, ‘“The Waiting Years”: 1842-1859’, Medical Journal of Australia, 26 Feb 1966, pp 336-40
  • D. Gordon, ‘Ballow and the “Emigrant” Incident’, Medical Journal of Australia, 19 Mar 1966, pp 483-85
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1842, 8 May 1843
  • Moreton Bay Courier, 21 Sept, 30 Nov 1850.

Citation details

Douglas Gordon, 'Cannan, Kearsey (1815–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 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

Kearsey Cannan, n.d.

Kearsey Cannan, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 79520

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


20 August, 1894 (aged ~ 79)
Queensland, Australia

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