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.

Michael Henry Downey (1877–1933)

by Jean P. Fielding

This article was published:

Michael Henry Downey (1877-1933), psychiatrist and army medical officer, was born on 20 October 1877 at Toolleen, Victoria, son of Irish-born William Downey, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Lynch. He was educated at Echuca Grammar School and in 1895 joined the Victorian Rangers. He began medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1896 and joined the University Officers' Corps in 1898, but moved to the University of Edinburgh (L.R.C.P., L.R.C.S., 1901). After service in the South African War in Cape Colony and western Transvaal as surgeon to the Royal Army Medical Corps, Downey returned to the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1904).

He had studied mental diseases with Sir Thomas Clouston at Edinburgh and W. Beattie Smith at Melbourne, and on 15 June 1905 was appointed assistant resident medical officer at Parkside Mental Asylum, Adelaide; from 1 January 1916 he was superintendent. From 1912 he lectured in psychological medicine at the University of Adelaide and about this time began negotiations for lunacy reform with the chief secretary. He recommended the Parkside asylum be renamed, that a filter in the form of a receiving house should be established between the patient's home and the asylum, and that private hospitals should be set up for patients, whose relatives objected to sending them to official mental institutions. All three proposals were eventually adopted.

In April 1909 Downey had been commissioned as a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps and was promoted major in 1912 and lieutenant-colonel in 1915. On 10 February 1916 he joined the Australian Imperial Force in command of the 11th Australian Field Ambulance which, after training on Salisbury plain, England, took over the Divisional Rest Station at Steenwerck, France, on 30 November. Downey showed conspicuous ability as a leader and organizer. During the battle of Messines on 7 June 1917 he won the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the evacuation of wounded from the Advanced Dressing Station at Kandahar Farm; his devotion to duty and untiring energy inspired all under him, and the removal of 3000 wounded in seven days 'went without a hitch'. During the 3rd battle of Ypres Downey commanded II Anzac Corps Main Dressing Station and on 26 October he was promoted temporary colonel and assistant director of medical services, 5th Division; his rank was confirmed on 26 April 1918. He served throughout that year with the 5th Division. In January 1919 he was admitted to hospital; he returned to Australia and left the A.I.F. on 27 June. He had been mentioned in dispatches three times.

Downey commanded the 6th Cavalry Field Ambulance from 1920 to 1926 when he retired from the A.A.M.C. He had returned to his position as superintendent at Parkside, the only mental hospital in South Australia until Northfield opened in 1929, and in 1920-33 also lectured in psychological medicine at the University of Adelaide. In 1929 he presented a paper to the Australasian Medical Congress on the use of malaria in the treatment of general paralysis of the insane.

He died suddenly of heart disease at Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, on 17 April 1933, and was buried in the Catholic section of West Terrace cemetery. He was survived by his wife Eva Agnes, née O'Brien, whom he had married at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 23 May 1906, and by their son. The Downey Receiving House, Glenside, honours his name.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Melbourne, Record of Active Service of Teachers, Graduates, Undergraduates, Officers and Servants in the European War, 1914-1918 (Melb, 1926)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917-18 (Syd, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • Nursing in South Australia: First Hundred Years 1837-1937 (Adel, 1939)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vol 3 (Canb, 1943)
  • H. T. Kay, 1870-1970: Commemorating the Centenary of Glenside Hospital (Adel, 1970)
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 4 Feb 1905
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18-19 Apr 1933
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 20 Apr 1933
  • Downey file, war records section (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Jean P. Fielding, 'Downey, Michael Henry (1877–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 October, 1877
Toolleen, Victoria, Australia


17 April, 1933 (aged 55)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.