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Robert Fowler (1888–1965)

by Colin Smith

This article was published:

Robert Fowler (1888-1965), surgeon and soldier, was born on 5 March 1888 at East Smithfield, London, son of Walter Fowler, surgeon, and his wife Alice, née Wacher. The family emigrated to Victoria in 1891, and lived at Echuca and then at Bendigo. Proceeding from Caulfield Grammar School to the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1909; M.D., 1912), Robert was Beaney scholar in pathology in 1911 and assistant-lecturer in pathology in 1912. At the Melbourne Hospital, he was successively resident medical officer, honorary assistant pathologist (1911-12) and honorary clinical assistant (1912).

Having served (from 1910) in the Citizen Military Forces, on 20 August 1914 Fowler was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. Two months later he embarked for Egypt. On 12 January 1915 at El Ma'âdi he married Melbourne-born Elsie Walshe. At Gallipoli in September he assumed command of the 1st Light Horse Field Ambulance. From February 1917 to January 1918 he commanded the 4th L.H.F.A. in the advance through Palestine. As temporary colonel and assistant-director of medical services, Australian Mounted Division, in October he faced the 'shambles of Damascus'—when '[m]alaria, dysentery, thirst and starvation were in sole control'—and met T. E. Lawrence. Appointed O.B.E. (1919) and thrice mentioned in dispatches, in 1920 Fowler returned to Australia where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 8 September.

He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, in 1920 and of the American College of Surgeons in 1924. A foundation fellow (1927) of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, in 1931-34 he was honorary surgeon to the governor-general Sir Isaac Isaacs. Fowler continued to serve in the citizen forces between the wars. His assessments of the potential for patients to be evacuated by air, and of the military importance to Australia of tropical medicine, were to prove prophetic. In 1936-37 he was group captain and deputy-director of medical services, Royal Australian Air Force. He commanded the 117th Australian General Hospital, Toowoomba, Queensland, in 1942-43, and was D.D.M.S., Victorian Lines of Communication Area, in 1943-44.

Fowler's reputation as 'the uncrowned king of gynaecology' was built at several Melbourne hospitals, especially the Alfred where he was honorary gynaecologist (1924-48) and established a famous clinic. In 1926 he had convened an obstetric inquiry for the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association. His 'pioneering work in the treatment of uterine cancer' included Australia's first Wertheim hysterectomies.

Fowler was also a pioneer of medical statistics in Australia. For the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, he had set up in 1939 a central cancer registry which collated data from six major hospitals. In 1955 he drew upon the data to assert 'the positive association of lung cancer and tobacco smoking'. Ten years later his paper was deemed to be 'the most important Australian contribution in this field'. The council established an annual Robert Fowler travelling scholarship.

Colleagues commented on Fowler's late-Victorian elegance, his 'beautiful operative methods' and his 'happy knack of inspiring his assistants'. He was described as 'lithe and rangy in build with a lean, aquiline face, fit frame for his keen and active brain'. A member (from 1932) of the University of Melbourne's standing committee of convocation, he was appointed warden of convocation in 1959 and a council-member in 1962. He died on 8 May 1965 at South Yarra and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery; his wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (Canb, 1961)
  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • L. Gardiner, EV Keogh, DCM, MM, MBBS, FRACP (Melb, 1990)
  • Transactions of the Third Session, Sydney: Australasian Medical Congress (British Medical Association), September 2 to 7
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 29 July 1939, p 155, 21 Nov 1942, p 455, 21 July 1951, p 69, 2 Apr 1955, p 485, 11 Sept 1965, pp 469, 597
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 May 1965
  • Fowler's war diary (copy held in Royal Australasian College of Surgeons archives, Melbourne).

Citation details

Colin Smith, 'Fowler, Robert (1888–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 June 2024.

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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