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Sir Norman McAlister Gregg (1892–1966)

by Paul A. L. Lancaster

This article was published:

Sir Norman McAlister Gregg (1892-1966), ophthalmologist, was born on 7 March 1892 at Burwood, Sydney, youngest of six children of native-born parents James Gregg, auctioneer, and his wife Mary, née Miller. Brilliant scholastically and on the sporting-field, Norman was educated at Homebush and Sydney grammar schools, and at the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1915). At university he gained many academic distinctions; he was president of the undergraduates' association and a director of the university union; he was awarded Blues for cricket and tennis in his first year; and he also belonged to the baseball and swimming teams, and to a local ice-hockey team. In 1913-14 he thrice represented New South Wales in cricket (his team-mates included Victor Trumper, Herbert Collins, Arthur Mailey and Charles Macartney) and once represented the State in tennis; but for World War I, membership of the Davis Cup team was within his reach.

Having completed medicine with first-class honours, Gregg went to England and on 23 March 1915 was commissioned temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served on the Western Front (1915-18) with the 7th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, and with the 52nd Field Ambulance (June 1918 to March 1919). Promoted temporary captain (1916) and acting major (1919), he won the Military Cross (gazetted 1919). Back home, he was appointed resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. A 'tall, lithe and vigorous young man', he returned to England to train as an ophthalmologist. In 1922 he gained the diploma of ophthalmic medicine and surgery (R.C.P.& S.) after working as house surgeon at Moorfields Eye and the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic hospitals, and at the Birmingham and Midland Counties Eye Hospital where he impressed the paediatrician (Sir) Leonard Parsons.

In 1923 Gregg set up practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney. That year he was appointed ophthalmic surgeon at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and held the same post from 1925 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children; he was consultant at the latter from 1950 and at the former from 1952. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Phillip Street, on 10 October 1923 he had married Haidée Margaret, daughter of Duncan Carson. Their two daughters became physiotherapists.

Gregg talked easily to his patients, and kept a tin of sweet biscuits for the children. His alert clinical observations and inquiring mind enabled him to make his outstanding discovery about rubella. On 15 October 1941 in Melbourne he delivered a paper on 'Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother' to the Ophthalmological Society of Australia which was published in its Transactions. His ethical approach to the care of his patients was poignantly shown when he subsequently revealed that he had not made a slit-lamp examination in his cases because he considered that he was not justified in subjecting babies to an anaesthetic for the necessary length of time.

His friend (Sir) Lorimer Dods stressed how his colleague's willingness to listen to 'that excellent clinical observer—the mother' yielded important information. Gregg's original paper—which emphasized such defects as cataracts and congenital heart disease, but did not include any statement about deafness—was reported in Sydney's popular press on a Monday morning. Before lunch that day two mothers had telephoned to say that they had suffered from rubella during the early stages of their pregnancies and that, while their children were deaf, they were not suffering from any of the defects he had enumerated. He went on to publish 'Further Observations on Congenital Defects in Infants following Maternal Rubella' in the Transactions of the O.S.A. (1944).

Gregg's findings had major implications for clinical medicine, basic research and public health. His work, and that of other studies confirming his initial observations, showed that rubella, previously regarded as a mild infectious disease, could cause cataracts and other significant birth defects if susceptible women became infected in the first few months of pregnancy. His discovery stimulated rapid development in the field of teratology and offered hope for primary prevention of some birth defects. It also stimulated research workers in the laboratory to isolate the rubella virus, although this was not achieved until 1962. A vaccine was later developed to protect young women against rubella before they reached their reproductive years.

Despite his large private practice, Gregg did more than his share of the work at his two hospitals. He was a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1934), president of the Ophthalmological Society of New South Wales (early 1930s) and of the Ophthalmological Society of Australia (1944-45), and lectured (1940-51) at the university on diseases of the eye. As vice-president (from 1946) and president (1959-66) of the board of management of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, he oversaw significant changes to improve children's comfort, such as the removal of restrictions on visiting hours and 'the brightening of the whole atmosphere of the hospital, doing away with the institutional look and giving it a comfortable, friendly, homelike atmosphere'. Dods wrote that the hospital owed 'an unmeasurable debt to him for his inspiring and clear-thinking leadership, his skilful chairmanship of a rapidly increasing number of committees, and his tireless and enthusiastic attendance at innumerable intramural and extramural hospital functions'. Gregg helped to found the Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia and was vice-president of the Children's Medical Research Foundation.

His many awards included the University of Adelaide's Shorney prize (1946), and the Charles Mickle fellowship of the University of Toronto (1951), Canada, which was awarded annually to 'the member of the medical profession who has done most during the preceding ten years to advance sound knowledge of a practical kind in medical art or science'. Knighted in 1953, Gregg was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, London (1952), and of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1953). He was awarded honorary doctorates—of medicine by the University of Melbourne (1952), science by the University of Sydney (1952) and science by the Australian National University (1958). The American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology conferred an honorary fellowship on him in 1955.

In December 1957 Gregg received an invitation from an Italian pathologist Professor Alfonso Giordano to be nominated for the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine for 1958. His reply showed his modesty and a revealing self-assessment of his own work: 'I must confess that it comes as a great surprise and rather a shock that my name should even be considered . . . I feel it only fair to you to inform you that I have really no serious publications except those on Rubella as I have found very little time or inclination for writing during a very busy life'. In 1964 Gregg shared a Britannica-Australia award for medicine with Dame Kate Campbell, the Melbourne paediatrician.

A committee-member (from 1941), captain (1944-47) and president (1952-56) of Royal Sydney Golf Club, Gregg was 'a recognised authority on the Rules of Golf', 'an energetic and forceful administrator', and 'a great stickler for club protocol and customs'. He was an alert, friendly and extroverted man, seemingly enthusiastic about everything, who also belonged to the Australian Club. Sir Norman died on 27 July 1966 at his Woollahra home and was cremated. His wife and daughters survived him.

Gregg's discovery that rubella in early pregnancy caused cataracts and other birth defects was a most important advance in medicine, but there are few symbolic reminders of him and his achievements. The Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists named a triennial lecture and a prize in his honour. Dods said of Gregg: 'Like so many truly great men, he retained throughout his life a natural humility, and remained a simple, uncomplicated person with a special love for his home and his many friends—a most sympathetic and understanding man of impeccable integrity and unceasing devotion to duty'. (Sir) William Dargie's portrait of Gregg is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the Great War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • D. G. Hamilton, Hand in Hand (Syd, 1979)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1, 1938-45 (Syd, 1988)
  • P. A. L. Lancaster, 'The eyes have it: Norman McAlister Gregg and Congenital Rubella', in B. Heagney (compiler), Rubella (Syd, 1992)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 10 Dec 1966, p 1166
  • Australian Journal of Science, 29, no 4, Oct 1966, p 104
  • Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society of Australia, 26, 1967 (Norman McAlister Gregg memorial number)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30, 31 July 1951, 30 Aug 1952, 28 July 1956, 8 Mar 1958, 4 Oct 1961, 20 Oct 1964
  • Times (London), 28 July 1966.

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Citation details

Paul A. L. Lancaster, 'Gregg, Sir Norman McAlister (1892–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 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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