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Rupert Major Downes (1885–1945)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Rupert Major Downes (1885-1945), surgeon and soldier, was born on 10 February 1885 at Mitcham, Adelaide, youngest child of Major General Major Francis Downes and his wife Helen Maria, née Chamberlin. Rupert was educated at Haileybury College, Melbourne, and at Ormond College, University of Melbourne (M.B., Ch.B., 1907; M.D., 1911; M.S., 1912). When still at school, he had joined the Victorian Horse Artillery (Rupertswood Battery) as a trumpeter and he had served in the Melbourne University Rifles. In July 1908 he was commissioned as a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps.

The first six years of his career were fruitful and happy ones. Downes was a demonstrator in anatomy at the university and a tutor at Ormond, and worked as a clinical surgical assistant at the Melbourne and Children's hospitals. At the same time he threw himself into the work of the A.A.M.C., being promoted major in 1913. On 20 November he married Doris Mary Robb at St John's Church, Toorak.

When the Australian Imperial Force was raised in 1914, Downes was given command of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance and promoted lieutenant-colonel, the youngest in the A.I.F. Before sailing for Egypt he was transferred to the 3rd L.H.F.A. which he led on Gallipoli where he won a name as an outstanding commander. On the formation of the Anzac Mounted Division in March 1916, Downes became its assistant director of medical services (senior medical officer) with the rank of colonel. He was also appointed A.D.M.S. of the Australian base in Egypt, and successfully combined the two roles for the remainder of the war.

Downes was remarkable as innovator and organizer. He introduced a sledge for moving casualties over sand. As casualty clearing station were immobile, he divided his field ambulances so that the mobile sections moved close to the battle while the stationary tented sections, some miles back, provided more extensive treatment in safer conditions. Downes also created a mobile surgical unit. His reputation was such that when the Desert Mounted Corps was organized in August 1917, he was appointed its deputy director of medical services.

In the Jordan Valley in 1918, Downes's anti-malarial measures kept sickness at acceptable levels; he had been greatly assisted by the Anzac Field Laboratory which he had raised in 1916. During the battle for Es Salt in May, he delivered medical supplies by dropping them from aircraft. In the advance to Damascus in September his medical arrangements were stretched to the limit. Then in Damascus, came the 'blizzard' of malaria, as he described it, when the weary troops went sick by the thousand. Downes and his medical units had to cope also with the great epidemic of influenza and with thousands of sick and wounded prisoners. Written from his diaries, his subsequent account of this situation and its gradual transformation, disposes completely of the romantic story in T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Almost all of the medical officers, including Downes, were stricken with malaria; he stayed at his post and, with immense determination, saw his unit through their bitterest trial.

Downes was appointed C.M.G. in January 1918 and mentioned in dispatches six times. His wife was appointed O.B.E. for work among soldiers' families. It was fitting that he was invited to write the section on the Sinai and Palestine campaign in Volume I of the Official history of the Australian Army Medical Services; and he was engaged in this work while rebuilding his surgical practice in Melbourne. Downes became an honorary consulting surgeon at the Children's and Victorian Eye and Ear hospitals, honorary surgeon at Prince Henry Hospital, and in 1927 a foundation fellow of the College of Surgeons of Australasia. He was president of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association in 1935 and lectured on medical ethics and professional conduct at the University of Melbourne. He was chairman of the Masseurs' Registration Board, a councillor of the Victorian division of the Australian Red Cross, and chairman of the Red Cross National Council in 1939. He became commissioner of the St John Ambulance Brigade and was president of the St John Ambulance Association for eight years. In 1929 he was appointed a commander of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and a knight of grace in 1937.

Downes's passion for military medicine had taken him back to the army in 1919 as an area medical officer. In 1921 he was a member of the committee charged with planning the reorganization of the Army Medical Service and the employment of the profession during an emergency. He was also appointed D.D.M.S., 3rd Military District (Victoria). His enthusiasm inspired some doctors to join and others to return to the Medical Corps. Using his great experience of mobile warfare, he held tactical exercises which stimulated the keenness of the young medical officers. According to Major General Sir Samuel Burston 'He was never a talker and more by example than by precept he indicated clearly what was expected of an officer of the Army Medical Corps … The officers trained by him during this period were to be amongst the most valued of the senior officers of the corps in World War II'.

In 1928 Downes joined a committee appointed to examine the mobilization of Australian medical resources for war. He vigorously opposed the concept, already accepted by some, of conscription of doctors and medical students under the direction of the minister of health. He went to Britain and Europe in 1933 to study army medical problems and developments in surgery of the brain and the central nervous system.

In August 1934 Downes was appointed director general of medical services and was promoted major general next year. Thus his earliest ambition of being a regular soldier was at last attained, although at the cost of relinquishing his surgical practice. He began work under the shadow of the death of his only son and when the army was starved of men, money and equipment. All his training, experience and interests combined to fit him for his new post at a time when war seemed imminent. 'Both by training, and by temperament Downes was a soldier to his finger tips', as Colonel Arthur Butler has written, but he was also one of the leaders of his profession, widely read and of limitless physical energy. He was soon to show that he was also a man of vision.

In the five years to the outbreak of war in 1939, Downes selected and trained many leaders of the A.A.M.C., foresaw civil as well as military medical problems, planned their solution and pioneered major developments in the medical side of recruitment. Urgent as these preparations were he never lost sight of the medical needs of the Australian people.

He had the help initially of only two regular staff officers and he co-operated with Dr John Cumpston, Commonwealth director of health. Downes was chairman of the board which in 1935 reorganized army medical equipment and examined the possibility of its local manufacture. His report foreshadowed the wartime control later effected through the Medical Equipment Control Committee. In 1937-38 he led in establishing the Central Medical Co-ordination Committee 'to co-ordinate arrangements for provision of medical men, material and hospital accommodation' and he chaired its sub-committee on supply of equipment. On Downes's initiative funds were provided in 1939 in time to import large quantities of drugs and equipment before war began; the M.E.C.C. with its parent committee efficiently allocated medical resources during World War II.

Downes's interest in training was felt throughout the Medical Corps. In 1936 in the first major tactical exercise for medical officers, for five days the medical problems of a Japanese invasion were studied on the ground between Goulburn and Wollongong. He also looked into the future when, in 1937, he called for a report on the medical and hygienic aspects of the Territory of New Guinea. He also fostered the development of women's services such as the Voluntary Aid Detachments.

In March 1939 Downes began a tour of military and other medical centres in India, the Middle East and Britain, returning in October. While in London, he took steps to obtain the services as consultants of two eminent Australians, the surgeon Sir Thomas Dunhill and (Sir) Neil Fairley, an expert in tropical diseases. Foreseeing the scale of the war, Downes began to press for the building of major military hospitals in the capital cities. He argued that after the war they should be handed over to the Repatriation Commission for the care of sick and disabled ex-service people. Despite strong opposition, especially on the grounds of cost, Downes persisted in his advocacy until in October 1940 he won his case. Time vindicated his judgment: the great hospitals such as Concord and Heidelberg are Rupert Downes's memorial.

He revolutionized the medical side of recruiting for the A.I.F. Radiography of the chest by means of miniature fluorography was introduced; every soldier's blood group was determined and recorded on his identity discs and all were inoculated against tetanus, smallpox, typhoid and paratyphoid fevers. Downes was also concerned that volunteers should be medically examined under proper conditions. He had to cope with 'the reluctance of some staff officers to regard the D.G.M.S. as the responsible technical adviser on medical affairs' and there were difficulties with the adjutant general to whom he was responsible. It must have been a solace when Burston wrote from the Middle East: 'I think it is safe to say that there has probably never been a force sent overseas from any country better equipped on the medical side'.

In November 1940 Downes had been appointed director of medical services, A.I.F. (Middle East), but General Sir Thomas Blamey had already appointed Burston to that post. There the matter rested until March 1941 when Downes was made inspector general of medical services by the minister of the army, (Sir) Percy Spender, without reference to the Military Board. While the growth of the army in Australia and of the A.I.F. overseas may well have justified such an appointment, its manner appears to have been highly irregular. Nevertheless, Downes welcomed the opportunity, implicit in the appointment, to visit operational areas. After inspecting major Australian centres, he went to the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, then on to Egypt, Palestine and Syria and home through India and Ceylon. Early in 1942 he inspected medical units at Port Moresby. When Blamey reorganized the army in March 1942, he made Burston D.G.M.S. Downes went to the Second Army as D.M.S. so that he now found himself serving under his recent subordinate and friend of long standing. Though he was in a backwater of the war, his responsibilities extended from the Queensland border to Hobart and Adelaide.

As Downes was almost 60 he had soon to retire, but as this day approached he was invited to write the medical history of Australia in the war. He accepted enthusiastically and began work with characteristic vigour. He was engaged on his new task when he decided to accompany Major General George Vasey to New Guinea; on 5 March 1945 their aircraft crashed in the sea off Cairns with the loss of all on board. Downes was buried in Cairns War Cemetery with military honours. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.

In his dedicated career, Downes won the admiration of the medical profession in peace and war. Whatever his role, whether surgeon, medical historian or commander, he impressed men by his intelligence, his selflessness and his drive. 'His directness, his robustness, his disdain of intrigue in any form, were his inspirational qualities to a rare degree and the success of the Medical Service in this war must be credited to Rupert Downes'. In these words the council of the B.M.A. in Victoria recognized his quality and his contribution to the well-being of Australian soldiers and thus to their success in war. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons established the Rupert Downes Memorial Lecture in his honour. To the amazement and dismay of his colleagues, his services from 1919 until his death were accepted by both the army and successive governments without any mark of distinction being bestowed upon him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vol 1 (Melb, 1930)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953), and The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • A. J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse (Melb, 1978)
  • London Gazette, 13 Oct 1916, 28 June 1917, 1, 12 Jan 1918, 22 Jan, 5 June 1919
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 28 Apr 1945, 24 Feb 1951, 17 July 1954, 21 Dec 1957, 20 Jan 1962
  • R. M. Downes diary, 1915-19 (Australian War Memorial).

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Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Downes, Rupert Major (1885–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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