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John William Yorke Fishbourne (1843–1911)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published:

John William Yorke Fishbourne (1843-1911), medical practitioner, was born in December 1843 at Coalkenno Rectory, Wicklow, Ireland, fourth son of Rev. Robert Fishbourne and his wife Anne, née Greene. He was educated at Cullaghmore, Carlow, and later at Kilkenny. At 16 he entered Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1863; M.B., 1864; Ch.M., 1865). He studied briefly in Brussels, then became a ship's surgeon, aboard the Avoca before settling in Victoria in 1869. On 13 January 1870 at Wickliff Church of England, Learmonth, he married Marian Isabella, daughter of Rev. Richard Radcliff of County Meath, Ireland. The couple had one son and six daughters, one of whom seems to have been epileptic.

Fishbourne's chief medical interest was in 'diseases of the mind' and this led him to work in mental asylums at Ararat (1872-77) where he was resident medical officer, and Kew (1877-82) where he was deputy medical superintendent. He then entered private practice at Moonee Ponds. About 1886 he became health officer for Essendon. In 1885 he had been a witness to the Zox royal commission on asylums for the insane and inebriate, where he supported Dr J. W. Springthorpe's criticism of Victoria's existing mental institutions; he urged that, if no psychiatric medicine could be crammed into Melbourne's medical course, doctors at asylums should be empowered to provide some lectures and training. The establishment of the Victorian Lunacy Department in 1903 was largely due to Springthorpe and Fishbourne persuading the British Medical Association (Victorian branch) to put pressure on the government. Fishbourne was also a founder, in 1906, of the Talbot Colony (now the Royal Talbot Centre), a residential centre for epileptics. In September 1911 he wrote for the Australasian Medical Congress in Sydney a paper on the care of the feeble-minded: 'his last and splendid effort to the cause to which he devoted his life'.

In 1893, during the depression, Fishbourne resigned as municipal health officer and his abundant energy was channelled back into his chosen field. With his daughter Laeta, he made over his home, St Aidan's in Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds, as a school or day-centre for mentally retarded children, and showed that some at least were educable, and that some of the uneducable were trainable. In 1907 the Education Department recognized St Aidan's as a primary special school; unfortunately it did not long outlive its founder and closed in 1913. It may rightly be regarded as the forerunner of Victoria's schools and centres for mentally handicapped children.

Fishbourne died of cerebro-vascular disease at his home on 26 September 1911, survived by his wife, son, and five of his daughters. He was buried in Fawkner cemetery after a service conducted by the vicar of St Thomas Church, Essendon, where Fishbourne had for many years sung in the choir. He is best remembered for his services to and compassion for the mentally afflicted. In the Essendon area he was a well-known figure who 'never flinched from the task of unburdening his mind in public'. This pioneer of both residential and day care for the mentally ill was revered for his kindness, probity and 'upright bearing' as a 'friend of the poor' who treated many without fee or hope of fee.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • C. R. D. Brothers, Early Victorian Psychiatry 1835-1905 (Melb, 1962)
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, Sept 1882, p 167, 20 Oct 1911, p 619, 630
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2 (1977), p 255
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Sept 1911
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Sept 1911
  • Essendon Gazette, 28 Sept 1911.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Fishbourne, John William Yorke (1843–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 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]


December, 1843
Coalkenno Rectory, Wicklow, Ireland


26 September, 1911 (aged 67)
Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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