Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Timothy John (Tim) Cotter (1900–1972)

by A. L. Martinuzzi

This article was published:

Timothy John Patrick Cotter (1900-1972), medical practitioner and pathologist, was born on 13 October 1900 at Richmond, Melbourne, first surviving child and elder son of Timothy Cotter, railway employee, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Crowley, both Irish born. Educated at Xavier College, Kew (1915-18), young Tim entered the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1924) and in 1926 commenced practice in a partnership at Ripponlea. On 19 January 1927 he married Lesley Beatrix Hennessy at St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne; they were to have one son and were later divorced.

Attracted by the opportunity to study bacteriology, he joined the laboratories of the Commonwealth Department of Health, under J. H. L. Cumpston. In 1933 Cotter was transferred to the department's branch at Townsville, Queensland, as pathologist-in-charge, to investigate tropical diseases and fevers. Next year he went to Ingham to examine a disease which had caused serious illness and some deaths among canecutters in the sugar industry. Assisted by Gordon Morrissey, a local doctor, and William Sawers from the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Sydney, Cotter found spiral-shaped organisms resembling those responsible for Weil's disease in the urine of some patients and succeeded in isolating the leptospira. The leptospirosis was carried by rats whose numbers were increasing rapidly in the havens provided by cane-fields. Discovery of the disease had serious economic consequences for the sugar industry. Because baits were not effective as a method of controlling the rats, the cane had to be burnt. But burnt cane incurred a penalty of one shilling per ton (at a time when the canecutter's rate of pay was only five shillings per ton). In addition, the manufacture of sugar from burnt cane was more difficult and it was also necessary to ensure that stale cane was not supplied. After prolonged negotiations involving a review of industrial awards, the burnt-cane solution was accepted and the suppression of the disease was ensured.

With Cumpston's support, in May 1936 Cotter was appointed medical superintendent of Innisfail Hospital. Following an aircraft crash near Mundoo aerodrome in 1938, an 18-year-old passenger was brought to the hospital with forty-seven fractures; after nine months she was able to leave without a blemish due to Cotter's skilful surgery. Late the same year, when a serious typhoid outbreak occurred, he obtained newly-released sulphur drugs and used them for the first time in North Queensland. On 21 May 1940 he resigned from the hospital to take up a private practice at Innisfail. He was appointed M.B.E. in 1956. From 1958 until 1972 he was a government-nominated member of the local hospitals board. On 26 August 1961 at his Innisfail home he married with Presbyterian forms Nita Nell Wentzel, a 30-year-old nurse.

In 1972 Cotter retired to Brisbane. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, and by the son of his first marriage, he died there on 23 May that year and was buried in Pinaroo lawn cemetery with Catholic rites; his estate was sworn for probate at $387,099. Innisfail Hospital holds his portrait.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Patrick, A History of Health and Medicine in Queensland 1824-1960 (Brisb, 1987)
  • J. H. L. Cumpston, Health and Diseases in Australia (Canb, 1989).

Citation details

A. L. Martinuzzi, 'Cotter, Timothy John (Tim) (1900–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 July 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

Life Summary [details]


13 October, 1900
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


23 May, 1972 (aged 71)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.