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Harold Whitridge Davies (1894–1946)

by P. O. Bishop

This article was published:

Harold Whitridge Davies (1894-1946), professor of physiology, was born on 27 June 1894 in Adelaide, eldest of five children of Edward Harold Davies, musician and music teacher, and his wife Ina Jane, née Deland. Educated at Prince Alfred College, Harold graduated from the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1917) and on 5 July 1917 was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He served on the Western Front with the 3rd Division. From late 1919 Davies spent three terms as an advanced student at New College, Oxford. He then worked at the Ashurst War Hospital as a research-assistant to J. S. Haldane, a leading respiratory physiologist. Davies's first scientific papers were in this field, which was to be his major research interest throughout the rest of his career.

After his A.I.F. appointment terminated in Adelaide on 12 August 1920, Davies followed Professor J. C. Meakins, with whom he had worked at Oxford, to the University of Edinburgh. As a research-assistant and lecturer, Davies continued to publish papers mainly concerned with the influence of circulatory disturbances on the gaseous exchange of the blood. His monograph with Meakins, Respiratory Function in Disease (London), appeared in 1925. He also published with C. G. Lambie and others on the use of insulin in diabetic patients. Having been appointed a Rockefeller Foundation fellow (for one year) in 1923, Davies worked with C. A. L. Binger at the Hospital of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York and was associated with some of the leading respiratory physiologists in the United States of America. In 1926 he moved from Edinburgh to the University of Leeds, England, as lecturer in physiology and pharmacology.

In 1930 Davies was appointed professor of physiology at the University of Sydney. On his arrival he found that the academic staff of the department had remained largely unchanged since World War I. The small amount of research that was being done was generally reported only in Australian journals. Davies arranged for two staff members—H. S. Wardlaw in 1930 and F. S. Cotton in 1933—to be awarded Rockefeller fellowships to work in the U.S.A.

In 1933 and 1934 Davies made two expeditions to Central Australia to study the possibility that Aborigines living in the hot, arid conditions there could have become especially adapted to water deprivation. The first expedition, with Wardlaw and three students, was to Hermannsburg, 70 miles (113 km) south-west of Alice Springs, Northern Territory. The second, which included T. G. Strehlow, was to Mount Liebig, 155 miles (249 km) north-west of Alice Springs. They concluded that there was no significant difference between the Black and the White man's adaptation to water deprivation.

Faced with formidable difficulties in building up the department of physiology, Davies proved unable to sustain his initial impact. When he had come to Sydney the Depression was at its worst and there was little possibility of making new staff appointments. In addition, the department was responsible for teaching both biochemistry and physiology, and from 1935 classes in pharmacology became an added burden. In the face of these difficulties, he began drinking heavily.

Unmarried, 'Pete' Davies was a kind and generous man who was held in affectionate regard by his many friends. He was a competent cellist and a bon viveur. An honorary consultant physiologist at three teaching hospitals, he became a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1938. That year a complaint from the medical students' society about the teaching of physiology and pharmacology was upheld by an investigatory sub-committee of the university's senate. In consequence, pharmacology was removed from the department of physiology and a separate department of biochemistry was established.

The outbreak of World War II provided Davies with a diversion from the cares of his department. An army reservist from 1920, he was mobilized as lieutenant colonel in June 1941 and commanded the 9th Field Ambulance for seven months; he was bitterly disappointed not to be sent overseas and relinquished his post in January 1942. Reports of his excessive drinking obliged the vice-chancellor to suspend him from duty at the university in May 1946. A committee of senate appointed to inquire into the suspension decided on 24 May to recommend that Davies be informed that the university no longer required his services. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 7 June that year, as a result of falling down the stairs in the Imperial Service Club, Barrack Street, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1, 1938-75 (Syd, 1988)
  • C. Turney et al, Australia's First (Syd, 1991)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 9, no 1, Aug 1946
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Aug 1923, 15 Oct 1929, 2 Mar, 22 Dec 1933, 5 Apr 1934, 10 June 1946.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. O. Bishop, 'Davies, Harold Whitridge (1894–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 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]


27 June, 1894
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


7 June, 1946 (aged 51)
Sydney, New South Wales, 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.