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John Frederick Clair Camphin Cobley (1914–1989)

by K. A. Johnson

This article was published:

John Frederick Clair Camphin Cobley (1914-1989), physician and historian, was born on 3 August 1914 at Newcastle, New South Wales, only child of Joseph Will Camphin Cobley, clerk, and his wife Ada Craig (Creagh), née Robertson, both born in New South Wales. He attended Abermain Public and Katoomba Intermediate High schools and won a scholarship to the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1937). After travelling to England as a ship’s surgeon, in 1938 he obtained a diploma in anaesthetics issued jointly by the Royal College of Physicians, London, and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He also qualified as a member (1939) of the RCP.

Back in Sydney he became a tutor in medicine at St Paul’s College, University of Sydney, and practised as a physician at Sydney Hospital and privately in Macquarie Street. Commissioned on 1 July 1940 as a captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, he served in the Greek campaign (1941) with the 2/3rd Casualty Clearing Station, and in the occupation of Syria (1941) and the battle of El Alamein, Egypt (1942), with the 2/8th Field Ambulance. He married Margaret Sanbrook, a member of the Australian Women’s Army Service, on 9 March 1943 at St Paul’s College, Sydney, with Anglican rites. In 1943-45 he was in New Guinea as a major with the 111th CCS and during this period was mentioned in despatches, probably for his work on scrub typhus. He returned to Sydney, where he was demobilised in February 1946. In 1948-54 and 1958-60 he was active in the Citizen Military Forces, rising to lieutenant colonel (1951).

Cobley’s chief interest was diabetes: he held appointments at the Royal Hospital for Women, the diabetic clinic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Blue Mountains District Anzac Memorial Hospital. A member (1940) and fellow (1978) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, he was also a councillor (1957-60) of the State branch of the British Medical Association. For many years he was an accredited medical examiner of airline pilots and, in 1966-68, as `Dr John’, he appeared on the television program `Casebook’ on Channel 7 in Sydney.

Convivial and hospitable, Cobley was an avid reader and book collector, with interests ranging from poetry to Antarctica. He became a member of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1961) and the Society of Australian Genealogists (1963). Between 1962 and 1986, with the assistance of his wife, he published a series entitled Sydney Cove. The five volumes recorded daily events in the settlement from 1788 to 1800, in the words of contemporary writers. He also produced The Convicts 1788-1792 (1964), The Crimes of the First Fleet Convicts (1970) and The Crimes of the Lady Juliana Convicts, 1790 (1989). The noted medical historian Dr Bryan Gandevia believed that Cobley’s works introduced `a new dimension and new techniques to Australian historiography’. Through his publications he played an important role in popularising Australian history. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he died on 4 January 1989 at Wahroonga and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2 (1994)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jan 1989, p 5
  • series B883, item NX35128 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

K. A. Johnson, 'Cobley, John Frederick Clair Camphin (1914–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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