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Sir Albert Ernest Coates (1895–1977)

by Rowan Webb

This article was published:

Albert Ernest Coates (1895-1977), by Murray Griffin

Albert Ernest Coates (1895-1977), by Murray Griffin

Australian War Memorial, ART27000

Sir Albert Ernest Coates (1895-1977), surgeon, was born on 28 January 1895 at Ballarat, Victoria, eldest of seven children of Arthur Coates, letter carrier, and his wife Clara Annie, née Eustice, both Victorian born. Although their worldly possessions were few, Arthur and Clara raised their family in an affectionate atmosphere and instilled in them the virtues of honesty, industry and education. They were strong supporters of the Methodist Church. Albert loved reading and had a thirst for knowledge, even as a child. His formal education at Mount Pleasant State School ended when he obtained his Merit certificate, aged 11. He began work as a butcher's apprentice, but at 14 was indentured to a bookbinder, which afforded opportunities to read widely.

Encouraged by (Sir) Leslie Morshead who had opened a night-school at Ballarat, Coates passed the junior public examination with distinctions in five subjects, including French and German. He had decided to study medicine, but first took a job in the Postmaster-General's Department to earn some money.

On 17 August 1914 Coates enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and became a medical orderly in the 7th Battalion. He served on Gallipoli and was one of the last to leave the peninsula on the night of 19/20 December 1915. His battalion was transferred to France in March 1916 and fought in the battle of the Somme. His skill as a linguist came to the attention of his superiors and in February 1917 he was attached to the intelligence staff, I Anzac Corps. Sir John Monash and British authorities recognized his ability and, at the end of the war, he was invited to apply for a commission in the British Army. Coates preferred, however, to go home to Australia where he found employment in the office of the Commonwealth censor in Melbourne.

Late in 1919 he returned to the P.M.G. where he continued to work night-shifts, while studying medicine at the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1924; M.D., 1926; M.S., 1927). Coates was one of the top students in his year, gaining second place in anatomy with first-class honours, and the exhibition in pathology in fourth year. At the final examinations he finished fourth in the class, with first-class honours in all subjects. On 26 March 1921 he had married Harriet Josephine Hicks (d.1934) at the Methodist Church, Camberwell; they were to have a son and three daughters.

In 1925 Coates was a resident at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital where he came under the guidance of Hamilton Russell and (Sir) Sidney Sewell. He then worked with Professor Richard Berry in the university's department of anatomy, first as a Stewart lecturer (1925-26) and next as acting-professor (1927). Back at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, he was appointed honorary surgeon to out-patients in 1927 and to in-patients in 1935. Following his wife's death he visited surgical centres in Britain, Europe and North America; shortly after his return he was asked to establish the neurosurgical unit at the R.M.H. On 31 December 1936 at St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Dunedin, New Zealand, he married Catherine Martha Anderson. From 1936 to 1940 he was part-time lecturer in surgical anatomy at the University of Melbourne.

Appointed lieutenant colonel, Australian Army Medical Corps, on 1 January 1941, Coates joined the Australian Imperial Force next day. He was posted to the 2nd/10th Australian General Hospital and stationed at Malacca, Malaya. After the Japanese invaded on 8 December, the 2nd/10th A.G.H. fell back to Singapore; Coates was ordered to join a party which sailed on 13 February 1942 for Java, Netherlands East Indies. The convoy was bombed and the survivors reached Tembilahan, Sumatra, where Coates saved many lives with his surgical skill. He made himself responsible for treating all British casualties, and felt duty-bound to stay with them, though he could have left on several occasions. On 28 February he arrived at Padang which was occupied by the Japanese three weeks later.

In May 1942 Coates's captors moved him to Burma. At the Kilo-30 and Kilo-55 camps on the Burma-Thailand Railway he cared for hundreds of prisoners of war under deplorable conditions. He subsequently described his medical practice at Kilo-55 to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East: in a bamboo lean-to, with his only instruments a knife, two pairs of artery forceps and a saw (used by the camp butchers and carpenters), his daily work consisted of 'segregating the sick from the very sick . . . curetting seventy or eighty ulcers during the morning . . . and, in the afternoon, proceeding to amputate nine or ten legs'.

In December 1943 the Japanese sent Coates to Thailand. There, from March 1944, he was chief medical officer of a prisoner-of-war hospital (10,000 beds) at Nakhon Pathom (Nakompaton). Through 'his initiative, resource and enthusiasm he was responsible for many improvisations which provided artificial limbs, transfusions and surgical appliances'. (Sir) Edward Dunlop was to recall that Coates's 'short, upright figure with a ghost of a swagger, a Burma cheroot clamped in his mouth, and his staccato flow of kindly, earthly wisdom became the object of hero-worship and inspiration'. With the cessation of hostilities, Coates returned to Melbourne in October 1945, transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 6 December and was appointed O.B.E. in 1946.

He resumed work as honorary surgeon to in-patients at R.M.H. In 1949-56 he was Stewart lecturer in surgery at the university; with Sir Alan Newton he played a major role in the establishment of chairs of medicine and surgery. In 1946 Coates was a medical witness at the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo and in 1951 a delegate to the signing of a peace treaty with Japan at San Francisco, United States of America. He was president (1941 and 1947) of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association, a delegate (1951) to the International Red Cross at Monte Carlo, Monaco, president (1955-61) of the War Nurses Memorial Centre, Melbourne, and an influential member (1949-76) of the board of management of the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital (chairman 1956-57). In 1953 he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Knighted in 1955, Coates was president (1954-55) of the Melbourne Rotary Club and a council-member (1953-57) of the University of Melbourne which in 1962 awarded him an honorary doctorate of laws. In 1971 he retired from medical practice. He was elected to the International Mark Twain Society in 1976 as successor to (Sir) Alexander Fleming.

Despite his height of 5 ft 5½ ins (166 cm), Coates was a distinguished figure, and was proud to be involved in great causes as a soldier and citizen. He enjoyed company and conversation, and had a deep love of the English language. In 1977, with Newman Rosenthal, he published The Albert Coates Story. He was a gifted orator, and equally compelling in the lecture theatre or teaching at the bedside. As a surgeon, he was bold and resourceful, and a favourite with patients. Although he was one of the last of the old-fashioned general surgeons, he was aware of advances in medical and allied sciences, and of their impact on surgical practice; he encouraged his juniors in research and in acquiring specialized skills.

At times Coates could be blunt, but he was always straight and to the point; he despised pretentiousness and any deviation from honourable behaviour. Intensely loyal by nature, he received great loyalty in return. He was simple and uncomplicated in his tastes and recreations, and had a happy home life. Coates hosted tennis parties and regularly played golf with his close friend Sir John Latham. Survived by his wife and their son, and by the children of his first marriage, Sir Albert died on 8 October 1977 at Royal Melbourne Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. A portrait by Murray Griffin is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra; two others, by Aileen Dent and Louis Kahan, are in the family's possession.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of the War (Canb, 1952)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • E. E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop (Melb, 1989)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 7 Apr 1979
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 58, 1988, p 419
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Dec 1943, 17 Apr 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 July 1954, 10, 13 Oct 1977
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 9 June 1955, 24 Feb 1971.

Citation details

Rowan Webb, 'Coates, Sir Albert Ernest (1895–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 16 April 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

Albert Ernest Coates (1895-1977), by Murray Griffin

Albert Ernest Coates (1895-1977), by Murray Griffin

Australian War Memorial, ART27000

Life Summary [details]


28 January, 1895
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


8 October, 1977 (aged 82)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.