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Down, John Egbert (1885–1963)

by Alison Pilger

This article was published:

John Egbert Down (1885-1963), by unknown photographer

John Egbert Down (1885-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 126242

John Egbert Down (1885-1963), dentist and army officer, was born on 29 July 1885 at Ascot Vale, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents Fred Adolphus Down, dentist, and his wife Fanny Mary, née Gardener. Educated at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne (L.D.S., 1906; B.D.Sc., 1920), John practised at Casterton where, on 16 April 1913 in Christ Church, he married with Anglican rites Ethel Ruth Jackson (d.1940).

After serving with the cadets, by 1914 Down was a lieutenant in the 20th Light Horse Regiment, Militia. On 14 July 1915 he joined the Australian Imperial Force as an honorary lieutenant, Dental Corps. Three days later he sailed for Egypt. He was sent to France in November and spent one year at the Divisional Base Depots, Etaples, before being attached to units in England. From November 1917 to October 1918 he was staff officer, dental services, A.I.F. Depots in Britain; from October to December 1918 he held a similar post in France. In 1917 he had been promoted captain (April) and major (December). He was appointed O.B.E. in 1919.

Down's A.I.F. appointment terminated on 21 April 1919 and he took over his father's Melbourne practice. He resumed his Militia career in 1924 as senior dental officer, 3rd District Base. In 1928 he was appointed inspector of dental services, Army Headquarters, Melbourne, and promoted lieutenant colonel; his posting marked the beginning of an established dental service in the Australian Military Forces.

As president (1928) of the State Dental Society of Victoria, Down had seen it become a branch of the Australian Dental Association: the change to a national body was intended to secure for the profession something of the power and status which the British Medical Association had brought to medicine. He was a member (1924-31) and president (1929-31) of the Dental Board of Victoria.

Appointed assistant director-general medical services (dental) in October 1939, Down was seconded to the A.I.F. on 30 June 1940 as senior officer, dental services, administrative headquarters. On 19 September that year at St James's Old Cathedral, West Melbourne, he married Jetta Crystal Bowman, a 23-year-old nurse. He embarked for the Middle East in October. Promoted colonel in January 1941, he was assistant-director of medical services (dental), A.I.F. in the Middle East, until January 1942. Down returned to Melbourne in February as A.D.G.M.S.(D.), Land Headquarters. He was mentioned in dispatches in June.

Rejecting the notion that dentistry was merely a branch of medicine, Down insisted that military dentists should have autonomy in professional matters. His Middle East experience revealed that the dental health of Australian soldiers was as poor as it had been in World War I. He was convinced that the provision of dental personnel, equipment and supplies received low priority because medical officers did not recognize the importance of dental treatment in maintaining the efficiency of troops in the field.

Down worked long and effectively to have the dental service separated from the medical corps, even using his friendship with General Sir Thomas Blamey. On 23 April 1943 the (Royal) Australian Army Dental Corps was formed; as director, Down was promoted temporary brigadier in August. In 1945 he was appointed C.B.E. Relinquishing his A.I.F. appointment in August 1946, he continued as part-time director, served in the Citizen Military Forces and grew fruit on his farm at Mitcham. He was placed on the Retired List on 4 May 1951.

Down brought military dentistry out of the shadow of medicine at a personal cost. By encouraging his subordinates to resist encroachments on their professional field, he aroused resentment among a number of senior medical officers. Forthright and uncompromising, even abrupt and abrasive on occasions, he made as many enemies as friends among civilian and army colleagues alike. Never the academic nor technical expert, Down was remembered more in admiration than affection as very much the military leader. He died on 30 November 1963 at Mornington and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did the three daughters of his first marriage. The J. E. Down Dental Training Centre, School of Army Health, Portsea, commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of War (Canb, 1952)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • Australian Journal of Dentistry, 1 Dec 1928, 1 Oct, 1 Nov 1930, 1 Feb, 1 Mar, 1 Nov 1931, Nov 1946
  • Australian Dental Journal, June 1977
  • Royal Australian Army Dental Corps, Cadmus, 7, 1988, 11, 1992
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Jan 1945
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1945
  • J. W. Skinner, The Origin of the Dental Service in the Australian Army (typescript, held by director of Dental Services—Army, Dept of Defence, Canberra).

Citation details

Alison Pilger, 'Down, John Egbert (1885–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 29 November 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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