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Douglas Gordon (1911–1993)

by Marion Mackenzie

This article was published:

Douglas Gordon (1911–1993), physician, medical administrator, and professor of social and preventive medicine, was born on 19 April 1911 at Maryborough, Queensland, only child of Queensland-born Aubrey Raymond Gordon, manager and later proprietor of a grazing freehold, and his Victorian-born wife Josephine Bernadette, née Foley. Douglas spent his early childhood on the family farm, Beaumont, at Tiaro, close to Gordon relatives.

The boy’s mother kept him out of the nearby Mount Bopple State School until age eight when she considered him old enough to travel there on horseback. In 1921 she enrolled him at St Joseph’s, a small boarding school at Corinda, Brisbane, run by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. He spent three, largely unhappy, years there. At age twelve, experiencing a call to religious life, he entered St Mary’s Towers, Douglas Park, near Camden, New South Wales, a training centre of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. He would always value the classical secondary education he received at the congregation’s school, particularly in languages and history. The realisation, after his novitiate year, that he was not suitable for the priesthood caused him emotional turmoil and he left the centre.

Encouraged by a family friend, Gordon studied medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1930. His mother suffered a severe, immobilising stroke during a visit to the city that year and died in 1932, but Gordon had by then returned to Tiaro. His father was also ailing and, because of the Depression, unable to continue paying his son’s university fees. Father and son kept the property going, diversifying into dairying and sugar-cane growing. Douglas also engaged in droving, contract fencing, and cane-cutting. After Aubrey’s death in 1935 he continued to run the property until 1938, when he decided to resume his studies at the new school of medicine at the University of Queensland (MB, BS, 1942).

As one of the oldest students, Gordon took leadership positions at St Leo’s College and in the Queensland Medical Students’ Association, presiding in 1940 and editing its magazine, Trephine. His course was shortened because of World War II. On 24 January 1942 at St Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane, he married Joan Alice Lutteral, a clerk, whom he had known at Maryborough. While completing a residency at Ipswich General Hospital (1942–43), he served part time in the Citizen Military Forces.

On 11 July 1943 Gordon was appointed as a flight lieutenant in the Medical Branch of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). In 1944 and 1945 he served with No. 14 Airfield Construction Squadron on Morotai and with No. 2 ACS at Balikpapan, Borneo. The diseases and conditions he managed included tropical ulcers, malaria, dysentery, scrub typhus, and schistosomiasis. Gordon regarded his war service as a major turning point in his life. He was impressed by the military’s extensive preventive-medicine practices, such as the supply of clean water, provision of sanitary latrines, and mosquito control, as well as its quick treatment and research into schistosomiasis. In addition, he valued working alongside engineers building airstrips in extreme conditions and pilots facing difficult flying conditions such as glare. He was acutely mindful of the psychological impact of war service.

Abandoning an intention to go into private general practice, Gordon joined the Queensland Department of Health and Home Affairs as health officer (industrial hygiene) in August 1946, following his demobilisation from the RAAF that month. Shortly afterwards his position was retitled director of industrial medicine. His duties required him to travel throughout Queensland, inspecting mines, factories, foundries, abattoirs, and farms for health hazards. Remedial measures, including new government regulations to reduce the incidence of lead poisoning, resulted from his investigations and advice. He developed a keen interest in the epidemiology of skin cancer.

In February 1957 Gordon assumed office as the foundation professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Queensland. The position gave him the opportunity to introduce to medical students the wide perspective gained from his field experience, research, and historical knowledge. He arranged for them to visit factories and water treatment plants. Furthermore, he developed social medicine as a formal discipline, extending knowledge and skills in bio-statistics and epidemiology. His text book, Health, Sickness, and Society (1976), was widely used in Australia and elsewhere.

Gordon had been influential in establishing the first course in social work at the university (1956) and he advocated the introduction of a department of anthropology and sociology (1966). He regarded the integrated work of doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists to be crucial in the management of patients and the alleviation of social problems. While continuing his teaching, he served as dean of medicine (1962–67), a part-time position involving him in every aspect of the faculty. He insisted on interviewing all new students. In 1958 he had founded the university’s student health service; the Douglas Gordon Health Centre would later be named (1987) in his honour to acknowledge his concern for the physical and psychological welfare of students.

From 1948 Gordon owned Coolooie Farm at Seventeen Mile Rocks in outer Brisbane. There he established a stud dairy herd and, with the assistance of a manager, supplied milk to the local market. He held office in the Friesian Cattle Club of Australia. The farm was the family home, providing a rural lifestyle close to the city. After his retirement from the university in April 1976, he sold the property and moved to Jindalee.

In retirement Gordon continued to serve (1969–79) on the North Brisbane Hospitals Board, maintained an active involvement in medical societies, contributed to journals, and engaged in public discourse. He was appointed AM in 1979. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate of medicine in 1986. He was a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1968) and the (Royal) Australian (Australasian) College of Medical Administrators (1978). His long interest in social and medical history from colonial times culminated in the publication of his Mad Dogs and Englishmen Went Out in the Queensland Sun (1990).

Gordon was tall and well-built, and retained the look of a countryman. He was widely respected for his integrity, humour, intolerance of hypocrisy, common-sense pragmatism, and perceptive observations on humanity. No longer claiming any religious belief, he came to value secular progress towards a more compassionate and gentle society. He died on 27 September 1993 at Auchenflower, Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did their two sons and one of their two daughters. The Public Health Association of Australia established the annual Douglas Gordon Oration in his honour.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Doherty, R. L., ed. A Medical School for Queensland. Spring Hill, Qld: Boolarong Publications, 1986
  • Fryer Library, University of Queensland. UQFL 360, Papers of Douglas Gordon, 1950–1993
  • Gordon Douglas. Short autobiography entitled Marginal Man. Unpublished manuscript. Gordon Papers. Private collection
  • Gordon Papers. Private collection
  • Hartshorn, Alma. `A Tribute to Professor Douglas Gordon.’ Newsletter (Australian Association of Social Workers, Queensland Branch). Unknown issue 1994, 18–19. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, GORDON D
  • Patrick, Ross. A History of Health & Medicine in Queensland 1824-1960. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1987
  • Pearn, John. `Professor Emeritus Douglas Gordon AM, MB BS, FRACP, FRAGCP, FRACMA, MD (Hon, Qld).’ Medical Journal of Australia 160 (7 March 1994): 299
  • Pearn, John. Professor Emeritus Douglas Gordon, 1911–1993: A Faculty Tribute, 25 October 1993. Papers of Douglas Gordon, 1950-1993, UQFL 360, box 1. Fryer Library, University of Queensland

Citation details

Marion Mackenzie, 'Gordon, Douglas (1911–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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