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Sir John Burton Cleland (1878–1971)

by R. V. Southcott

This article was published:

Sir John Burton Cleland (1878-1971), pathologist and naturalist, was born on 22 June 1878 at Norwood, South Australia, elder son of William Lennox Cleland, medical practitioner, and his wife Matilda Lauder Burton, daughter of John Hill Burton, historiographer royal for Scotland. He was educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, and the universities of Adelaide and Sydney (M.B., 1900; M.D., 1902). The deadlock between the honorary staff of the Adelaide Hospital and the government in 1897 meant that students had to transfer to medical schools in Melbourne and Sydney. In January 1900 he became house surgeon at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and next year was second resident pathologist. His M.D. thesis was on 'Iodic purpura. Cirrhosis of the stomach and colon'. In 1903 he travelled to England and studied at the London School of Tropical Medicine, and in Glasgow. In 1904 he was cancer research scholar at London Hospital.

Next year Cleland went to Western Australia as government bacteriologist and pathologist. Bubonic plague was present in the State and he was able to study the internal parasites of Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus, and the laterality of pregnancy in these mammals. In 1907 he investigated the trypanosomal disease 'Surra' in camels at Port Hedland. Commercial interests objected, but the disease was finally eradicated by the identification and slaughter of infected beasts. Cleland noted also that the camels carried parasitic flies (Hippoboscidae) and ticks. One of his celebrated cases in forensic pathology at this time concerned the 'spirit of salts murders': death had been caused by the painting of the throat of child victims with strong hydrochloric acid, simulating diphtheria.

In 1909 Cleland joined the Bureau of Microbiology, Sydney, and he eventually became principal microbiologist. He edited the Australasian Medical Gazette, and made his major contributions to experimental medicine, in collaboration with Burton Bradley and W. McDonald. The first was the proof in 1916, using human volunteers, that the virus disease dengue is transmitted by the culicine mosquito Aedes aegypti. The second was the defining of the newly discovered encephalitis, then called 'Australian X disease', and the proof that it was distinct from poliomyelitis, not only by its microscopic characteristics, but also by the experimental transmission of virus strains to monkeys, sheep and other herbivores.

In 1920 Cleland was appointed first Marks professor of pathology (which then included bacteriology) at the University of Adelaide. Although it ended his experimental studies in epidemiology it allowed him to begin a systematic study of what must be one of the largest series of meticulous autopsy examinations ever conducted by one person—over 7000. Cleland regarded each post-mortem examination as a voyage of discovery and never wearied, continuing to do routine autopsy work into his mid-80s. He was honorary pathologist at the Adelaide Hospital in 1920-38, and then honorary consultant. He was also honorary consulting pathologist to the Adelaide Children's Hospital. He had an unrivalled experience in macroscopic morbid anatomy and histopathology, and often diagnosed rare conditions almost at a glance. With each further 1000 autopsy records amassed, he would analyse and epitomize his findings and publish them in the Medical Journal of Australia or the Royal Adelaide Hospital's Medical and Scientific Archives, which he founded and edited in 1921-48.

Cleland's interest in anthropology culminated in a long series of papers on the diseases of Australian Aboriginals. He also found time to promote and undertake field work in anthropology. With Thomas Campbell and Frederick Wood Jones he formed the Board of Anthropological Research at the university, which he chaired for nearly thirty years. His early researches were in blood groupings and the general ecological aspect of Aboriginal life, such as the use of indigenous plants for foods and drugs. Some of these studies were made with Thomas Harvey Johnston and N. B. Tindale. Cleland was twice president of the Anthropological Society of South Australia and a member of the State's Aborigines Protection Board; he had a 'sincere interest and affection for the Aboriginal as a human being'. An appreciation of his work in anthropology has been made by T. D. Campbell (1959).

However, Cleland's botanical studies were probably more important. As a boy his father had given him M. C. Cooke's Handbook of Australian Fungi (1892). After his return to Adelaide his interest in fungi expanded and he published two volumes (1934-35) on the larger fungi of South Australia which included many other Australian records. Today this is the only general Australian work on the subject. Although largely taxonomic, other general biological features were included. He wrote also a number of papers on local vascular plants. In this field he was mainly a collector and floristic surveyor. He presented a collection of nearly 30,000 plants to the South Australian Herbarium. His collecting included nearly 60 plant species new to science, described by John McConnell Black and others. Constance Eardley, in her sensitive appreciation of Cleland's botanical work (1959) as 'a discriminating plant explorer', has emphasized that one of his most important contributions to botany was his support of Black. Cleland also gathered data on the harmful effects of plants which he incorporated in a series of papers in medical and other journals.

Ornithology was another of his major interests, particularly in reference to the distribution and general ecology, and he did much field collecting and observing during his anthropological and other surveys. He donated nearly 1000 bird-skins to Gregory Mathews for his book, The Birds of Australia (1910-1927), a number of which became type specimens. In 1956 Cleland presented 450 skins to the South Australian Museum, together with valuable data. He also collected the birds' ectoparasites and endoparasites.

In a series of papers in 1912-69 Cleland amassed and evaluated data on the ill effects, from both ingestion and physical encounters, passed to man from animals: some later papers were in collaboration with R. V. Southcott. In one, the illnesses of (Sir) Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz in the Antarctic in 1911-14 were attributed to the poisonous effects of excessive vitamin A intake from eating dog liver, a hypothesis which has received support from other evidence.

Wildlife conservation absorbed Cleland in his later years: he was a commissioner of the National Park, Belair, South Australia, in 1928 and chairman in 1936-65. He chaired in 1922-68 the Flora and Fauna Handbooks Committee of South Australia, a body founded largely at his instigation. It has produced a continuing series of descriptive biological manuals, with some on geology. They are largely taxonomic and have provided an unparalleled body of work on local, and often more generally Australian, flora and fauna.

Cleland's scientific interests, pursued through prodigious committee work, have probably proved of more lasting value than his medical studies. He was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Royal Society of South Australia (twice), Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union, Medical Sciences Club of South Australia, and the Western Australian Natural History Society. He retired from the Central Board of Health of South Australia aged 90.

The onset of blindness in his late 80s, stoically accepted, forced Cleland to curtail his activities. These had included a trip to New Guinea a few years before where his forensic interests were stimulated by a collection of recipes for the cooking of human flesh. Despite his great age his faculties were quite unclouded, but he regretted that he was prevented from his favoured reading: the early journals of exploration in Australia. He was also interested in Australian and Scottish history and literature. His collection of favourite quotations from the classical period down to modern times was edited by Dr E. B. Sims (1963). Cleland was part-author of The First Hundred Years. A History of Burnside, South Australia (1956), and wrote 'The village of Beaumont' for the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, S.A. Branch, (Volume 50).

Cleland's biological collecting resulted in perhaps forty species or subspecies among fungi, vascular plants and animals being named after him, as well as a new genus Clelandia being erected in both the plant and animal worlds. Although discriminating he was not excessively pedantic or critical. It is probable that his enormous collections will leave a continuing legacy for future biologists. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1949 and knighted in 1964. He was awarded the Sir Joseph Verco medal of the Royal Society of South Australia (1933), the Clive Lord memorial medal of the Royal Society of Tasmania (1939), the Australian Natural History medallion (1952) and the John Lewis gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, S.A. Branch (1964). He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1949 and a life member of the South Australian Ornithological Association in 1961. Cleland Conservation Park in the Mount Lofty Ranges was named after him.

Although a staunch Anglican, Cleland had married Dora Isabel Paton in Adelaide on 25 April 1908 with Presbyterian forms; she predeceased him. Survived by his four daughters and a son, he died on 11 August 1971 and was buried in Walkerville cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 7 Dec 1918, 22 June 1968
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 82 (1958-59), 95 (1971)
  • South Australian Naturalist, 46 (1971-72)
  • Emu, July 1972
  • Royal Society of Western Australia, Journal, 56 (1973)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Aug 1971
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library) O. Pink, correspondence (South Australian Museum, Adelaide)
  • J. B. Cleland and R. V. Southcott papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

R. V. Southcott, 'Cleland, Sir John Burton (1878–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1878
Norwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


11 August, 1971 (aged 93)

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