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Edward Henry Embley (1861–1924)

by Geoffrey Kaye

This article was published:

Edward Henry Embley (1861-1924), anaesthetist, was born on 28 February 1861 at Castlemaine, Victoria, younger son of Richard Edward Embley, baker, and his wife Mary, née Smith, both from Gloucestershire, England. Embley showed early promise in chemistry and mathematics at Castlemaine Grammar School and at 14 was apprenticed to a local pharmacist. He later went to Bendigo and while working in a chemist's shop attended Bendigo High School. He was registered as a pharmacist in 1882 and took on a small business in Melbourne. On 27 December 1883 at Carlton he married Lydia Matilda Jane Cox, by whom he had a son, who died in infancy, and two daughters.

In 1884 Embley began a medical course at the University of Melbourne, supporting himself by pharmacy. He graduated M.B., B.S. in 1889, proceeding M.D. by thesis in 1901. Entering general practice in La Trobe Street, he was soon in demand as an anaesthetist. He was honorary anaesthetist at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital in 1895-1917, an honorary consultant in 1917-24, and lectured on the subject at the university from about 1900 to 1919.

Embley is remembered for his study of chloroform. This anaesthetic was known to depress the respiration and circulation, and to damage the liver and kidneys. It could also cause sudden death in the induction stage. Embley rejected the Hyderabad Commission's findings of 1889-91 that these deaths were due to respiratory failure, a view which ignored the sudden deaths. In 1899 he went as a week-end volunteer to the university's physiology department, to work under (Sir) Charles Martin. The upshot was his classic paper of 1902. Embley proved sudden death under chloroform to be due to cardiac, not to respiratory failure. His paper aroused world wide interest. Henceforth, chloroform was to be given progressively, close watch upon the pulse and avoidance of surgical interference until anaesthesia was complete.

Discovery rarely springs complete from a single brain. Speculation thus arose as to Martin's share in the paper. Professor William Osborne, Embley's close friend, wrote that he had been ignorant of laboratory methods at first, but soon became a first-class experimental physiologist. While Martin admitted that he had, understandably, helped Embley, he praised the latter's insatiable curiosity, perseverance and fine qualities.

Embley believed chloroform over-stimulated the vagal nerve-centre in the brain, thus leading to cardiac arrest. This view was mistaken: he had quite missed ventricular fibrillation which A. G. Levy in 1911-13 proved could be induced by chloroform. Embley was sceptical at first but soon assented. Neither man had used the electro-cardiograph which reached Australia only in 1912 and was perhaps unusual in English laboratories in 1911. Later electro-cardiograph studies bore out Levy's view. Withal, Embley in 1902 deserved full credit for refuting the Hyderabad Commission, for proving the cardio-toxication of chloroform, and for proposing a safer method of administration.

Embley studied ethyl chloride, showing it to affect the heart much as does chloroform, but in minor degree: ether was even less toxic. Initially, he had used the unphysiological 'closed' ether-inhalers of his day. He was converted about 1909 by R. W. Hornabrook to 'open-mask' administration. If Australian anaesthetists in 1909-45 had unusual skill with 'open' ether, they owed it to the precepts of Hornabrook and Embley. The latter published one paper upon anaesthesia with nitrous oxide-oxygen, but probably had no great experience with it.

Embley published some twenty-four papers: clinical, pharmacological and chemical. He received the first David Syme prize for scientific research in 1906. He sent papers to two international congresses (London, 1913; San Francisco, 1915), but apparently never travelled himself. In 1920 he retired because of ill health. He died of cerebro-vascular disease at his Camberwell home on 9 May 1924, survived by his wife and daughters, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

In his lifetime Embley was better known abroad than at home. Recognition came in 1929 when the International Anaesthesia Research Society held a memorial dinner in Chicago, and presented a scroll of honour to the University of Melbourne. In that year the triennial Embley Memorial lecture and the annual Embley medal were endowed by the British Medical Association (Victorian Branch), members of his family and others; in 1930 the association erected a memorial plaque in its own hall, and a duplicate in the University of Melbourne.

Something of Embley's personality has survived the years. Osborne spoke of him as 'a gentle spirit' and 'a dedicated man'. Sir William Upjohn, once his pupil, describes him as having been slow speaking, kindly and a fine teacher; he himself used Embley, whenever possible, as his anaesthetist. His manner inspired confidence, and his colleagues held him in the highest esteem.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • H. K. Beecher, The Physiology of Anesthesia (New York, 1938)
  • R. M. Waters et al (eds), Chloroform, a Study after 100 Years (Madison, 1951)
  • Heart (Lond), 5 (1913-14), p 299
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 12 July 1924, p 47, 28 May 1932, p 755, 11 Feb 1939, p 209
  • Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, 7 (1979), p 114
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1904
  • Embley papers (Dept of Medical History, University of Melbourne, and Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Melbourne).

Citation details

Geoffrey Kaye, 'Embley, Edward Henry (1861–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 February, 1861
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


9 May, 1924 (aged 63)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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