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John Royle Casley-Smith (1935–1997)

by Neil B. Piller

This article was published online in 2023

John Casley-Smith

John Casley-Smith

Casley-Smith family

John Royle Casley-Smith (1935–1997), medical scientist, was born on 15 February 1935 in Adelaide, only child of South Australian-born parents Roy Frisby Smith, lawyer, and his wife, Marjorie Phyllis Casley, née Thomas, medical officer. After his father’s premature death in 1938, John grew up at Malvern, Adelaide, with his mother, grandmother, and the family nurse. Educated at Scotch College as a day student, he was a keen sportsperson and scholar, excelling at cadets, heavyweight boxing, science, and mathematics, and involving himself in a wide range of extracurricular activities. The top performing student at his school to sit for the Leaving certificate examinations in 1950—an achievement that won him the J. W. McGregor scholarship and a Commonwealth bursary to study at university—he was subsequently appointed prefect and went on to pass his Leaving Honours in four subjects in 1951.

The following year, while studying at the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1957; MBBS, 1959; DSc, 1971), Casley-Smith registered for national service training, but was rejected on medical grounds. He nevertheless remained involved with cadets and was an enthusiastic member of the university’s rugby team and air squadron while also rising to the rank of flight lieutenant in the Medical Branch of the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve. A man of many interests, he was the proud owner of an old sailing boat which he kept at the Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron’s moorings.

Eager to learn and hardworking, Casley-Smith won the university’s Roby Fletcher prize for psychology (1953) and Lister medal for surgery (1957) before being selected as South Australia’s Rhodes scholar in 1958. Deferring his admission to work briefly as a house surgeon at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, he commenced his studies in October 1959 at Magdalen College, Oxford (DPhil, 1962; DSc, 1980), where he was introduced to lymphology by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Howard (Baron) Florey. While a Beit junior fellow—his research also benefiting from funding awarded by the Royal Society of Medicine (1960–62) and the National Heart Foundation of Australia (1961–63)—he married Judith (Judy) Rosemary Daymond, a medical student he had met in Adelaide, on 23 June 1960 at the Magdalene College Chapel. It was the beginning of a lifelong partnership and collaboration.

After spending time as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre de la Recherche sur la Cellule at Villejuif, France, Casley-Smith returned to Australia in November 1962. At the University of Adelaide he was fellow in the department of anatomy (1962–63), then a senior lecturer in the department of zoology (1964–70). In this position, and later as reader (1971–94), he established and directed the Electron Microscope Unit (later the Henry Thomas Laboratory). He was also a member of the university council (1969–76) and St Mark’s College council (1972–82), as well as serving on a number of faculty boards and committees.

With Judy, Casley-Smith established the Lymphoedema Association of Australia in 1982, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness and advancing research on lymphoedema and its treatment. Devoted to improving patient outcomes, they published extensively, pioneered what became known as the Casley-Smith method for the treatment of lymphoedema (sometimes known as complex physical/lymphoedema therapy), developed techniques of manual lymphatic drainage, advanced the study of microcirculation, and taught one of the earliest English-language courses on lymphatic massage outside Germany (1990). Later in his career, he also led the experimental and clinical testing of the benzopyrones group of drugs at Flinders Medical Centre, which led to a major advancement in the treatment of lymphoedema and elephantiasis. He also experimented with the drugs on his twenty-year-old son Nicholas in an attempt to treat his acute schizophrenia.

Casley-Smith was a leader in lymphatic research in Australia and internationally, and was often invited to visit overseas laboratories and attend international conferences. The modest recipient of many grants, honours, and awards—including the prestigious R T Hall prize of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand (1971)—and a committed member of the scientific community, he was a foundation member of the Australian Society for Medical Research (1965), the Australasian Society for Experimental Pathology (council member 1968–72), and the International Society for Lymphology (1966, president 1983–85). He also held numerous elected positions with overseas societies, institutions, and organisations, and served on several editorial boards. His expertise was often sought, not only by lymphologists but also by surgeons, nutritionists, immunologists, biologists, and biomedical engineers among others, as well as by organisations such as the Armed Forces Food Science Establishment and World Health Organization.

When they were not overseas, the Casley-Smiths lived between their seaside house at Tennyson and their property at Mylor in the Adelaide Hills, where they enjoyed farming and breeding animals. On Ash Wednesday in February 1980 their Mylor house were destroyed in a bushfire. In an extended legal battle in 1988–89, they were lead plaintiffs of a group that successfully sued the District Council of Stirling for damages, including for personal injury to their son whose schizophrenia they attributed to the fire. Several of the Casley-Smiths’ claims were contested by local residents and the State’s Liberal Opposition for what they considered to be their ‘exaggerated and, in some cases, fraudulent nature’ (SA LC 1990, 285). The ensuing controversy was critical to the appointment of a Legislative Council select committee in 1990 to inquire into compensation claims and settlements. Later in life, Casley-Smith was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and survived a heart attack. He died suddenly on 19 June 1997 in Paris where he was attending a scientific meeting, and was survived by his wife and their children, Georgina, Richard, and Nicholas. Judy continued their work until 2003 when she suffered a severe stroke.

An indefatigable worker with an infectious personality, irrepressible optimism, and a warm belly laugh, Casley-Smith was described by colleagues as a consummate gentleman and ‘a thinker of high order’ (Piller 1997, 14). His legacy lives on in the Australian and international lymphoedema community. Of particular importance is the international organisation, Casley-Smith International, which continues to educate and stimulate research on lymphoedema in line with the Casley-Smith principles and guidelines. The Australian and New Zealand Microcirculation Society established an annual award in his honour.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Casley-Smith & Ors v F S Evans & Sons P/L & the District Council of Stirling (No. 5) [1988] SASC 1061 (3 November 1988). Copy held on ADB file

  • Clodius, Leo. Obituary. Lymphology 30 (1997): 204–7

  • Millnier, Karen. ‘Chance Discovery Gives Hope in Schizophrenia Treatment.’ Canberra Times, 7 November 1983, 6

  • National Archives of Australia. AT25/3, S07775

  • South Australia. Legislative Council. Parliamentary Debates, 15 August 1990, 285

  • Piller, Neil. ‘Scientist Solved Lymphatic Mysteries.’ Australian, 4 August 1997, 14

  • University of Adelaide Archives. Casley-Smith, Dr J.R. Student and staff files

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Neil B. Piller, 'Casley-Smith, John Royle (1935–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/casley-smith-john-royle-32467/text40270, published online 2023, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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