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James Biggam Douglas Galbraith (1894–1984)

by Gordon Keys Smith

This article was published:

James Biggam Douglas Galbraith (1894-1984), physician, was born on 11 July 1894 at Liverpool, England, son of Andrew Biggam Galbraith, marine engineer, and his wife Grace, née McWilliam. Douglas was educated at Stranraer High School in south-west Scotland and at the University of Glasgow (MB, Ch.B., 1917; MD, 1923). In 1915 he was a surgeon probationer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, serving in destroyers. Joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1917, he was posted to Mesopotamia and Kurdistan before being demobilised in 1920 as a captain. He then worked in Glasgow hospitals until migrating to Australia in 1923.

Establishing a private practice in Melbourne, Galbraith, as honorary physician to out-patients (1925-35), began an enduring relationship with the (Royal) Children’s Hospital. On 22 March 1926 at Scots Church, he married Esther Struthers Marshall. After convalescing from pulmonary tuberculosis, he was appointed medical superintendent (1935-40) of the Frankston orthopaedic section of the hospital, where he introduced Australia’s first comprehensive regime of paediatric rehabilitation. He developed a cohesive plan that treated the children in the context of family and community, emphasised their social and psychological adjustment, and identified the social, educational and vocational services essential to their integration into society. In 1935 he was a foundation council member (vice-president 1937-67; honorary member and patron from 1967) of the Victorian Society for Crippled Children (Yooralla Society of Victoria after 1977). He was elected a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1938.

Commissioned in the Militia (May 1940) then in the Australian Imperial Force (May 1941), Galbraith joined the staff of the director-general of medical services in Melbourne. In 1941 he oversaw the conversion of the Dutch liner Oranje into a hospital ship and made two trips to the Middle East in her as officer commanding Australian troops. He was appointed a commander of the Netherlands Order of the Oranje-Nassau (1944) for this work. In September 1942 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and in July 1944 was appointed the army’s medical rehabilitation officer. His service ended in May 1946.

On secondment to the Department of Post-War Reconstruction as co-ordinator of rehabilitation (1946-47), Galbraith prepared a Report on the Provision in Australia of a National Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Physically Handicapped Persons (1947), which led to the establishment of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service in 1948. With Kathleen Best, he founded the Occupational Therapy School of Victoria, and served (1948-54) on its board of management. Returning to the Children’s Hospital in 1948 as honorary physician to in-patients, he resumed his work in paediatric rehabilitation and chaired the interim planning committee for the hospital’s new premises in Parkville. He retired in 1960.

Galbraith’s outstanding professional qualities were his ability to see the wider perspectives of medicine, and his vision for the full social integration of disabled people into the community. In retirement, interested in the health of Indigenous children, he spent two months at Cape York as a locum with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. He served on the medical services committee of the Australian Red Cross Society (1948-55), several committees of the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled (life member, 1968) and the National Rehabilitation Advisory Committee, and was an active member of the Australian Council for the Physically Handicapped (after 1963, the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled). In 1965 he was appointed OBE. Proud of his Scottish origins, Douglas Galbraith had a noticeable accent and a dry sense of humour. He was an excellent raconteur, a keen sailor and an expert in Scottish dancing. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 25 August 1984 at Mount Eliza, Victoria, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Norris (ed), The Society (1974)
  • J. Tipping, Back on Their Feet (1992)
  • P. Yule, The Royal Children’s Hospital (1999)
  • Australian Paediatric Journal, vol 21, no 5, 1985, p 5
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Gordon Keys Smith, 'Galbraith, James Biggam Douglas (1894–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 3 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 July, 1894
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


25 August, 1984 (aged 90)
Mount Eliza, Victoria, Australia

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