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William John Hancock (1864–1931)

by Prue Joske

This article was published:

William John Hancock (1864-1931), electrical engineer and radiologist, was born on 2 May 1864 in Dublin, eldest son of William John Hancock, actuary, and his wife Annette Dickson, née Bowdler. He studied engineering for two years at the University of Glasgow under his uncle by marriage, Professor James Thomson, whose brother became Lord Kelvin.

After experience with the Dublin Telephone Exchange, Hancock came to Western Australia in 1886, as superintendent of telephones. He installed the first line between Government House and the Colonial Secretary's Office in 1886 and the Perth exchange in 1887, and supervised the construction of the Perth to Fremantle line. In 1890 he was appointed superintendent of telegraphs, and was responsible for the extension of lines to the goldfields and the remote north. There were difficulties due to the distance, termites, lack of water, heat, bushfires and damage by Aboriginals.

Hancock became government electrical engineer in 1894, a post he retained until his poor health forced his retirement in 1922: he supervised all electrical works in Western Australia, including submarine cables and tramways.

Röntgen's discovery of X-rays was published in 1895. Hancock obtained the apparatus from London and demonstrated its use in Perth in August 1896. The Perth Public Hospital allocated him a small room and appointed him honorary radiographer in 1898. For the next twenty-two years he worked as an engineer by day and contributed his services and equipment, valued at £500, to public patients on several afternoons and evenings each week: it is estimated that he handled over 30,000 exposures. He was assisted in this work by his brother Neilson, secretary to the Perth Public Hospital, 1897-1913, secretary to the Western Australian branch of the British Medical Association, 1918-44, and registrar of the Medical Board 1927-49.

Hancock married Ida Helen, daughter of Dr T. H. Lovegrove, on 1 December 1910, in St George's Anglican Cathedral. They had no children.

In 1915 he was honorary radiologist at the Fremantle Base Hospital, where his apparatus and skills were invaluable in detecting bullets and shrapnel in wounded returned soldiers. The danger of prolonged exposure to bare X-ray tubes was not initially understood, and Hancock had suffered mutilations and ulceration to his hands by 1903. He was a semi-invalid on his retirement, although he continued as honorary consulting radiologist to Perth Hospital until 1930. He received a government pension of £369 a year from 1922.

Hancock was awarded the first Kelvin gold medal by the Royal Society of Western Australia in 1924. In 1915-27 he was a member of the Senate of the University of Western Australia which conferred on him an honorary doctorate of science in 1924. A member of many scientific, engineering and radiological societies, he had advocated the use of solar energy in Australia in 1917. He was a member of the British Medical Association and of the Weld Club.

During his later years he lived for long periods in the south of France and spent the last year of his life in various London hospitals. Hancock died on 26 August 1931. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the grounds of the University of Western Australia. A stained glass window was dedicated to him in the University's Winthrop Hall in 1934 and a memorial plaque at the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra also commemorates him. His wife, who died in 1943, left £1000 to the Royal Perth Hospital whose Hancock Memorial Museum of Radiology was opened in 1957.

A tall, handsome man, noted for his gentleness, patience and tact with the sick, Hancock was an avid philatelist and notoriously vague about money. His dedicated service, freely given at the cost of his own health, mark him as a martyr to medical science in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of Western Australia, Proceedings, 3 (1916-17), p 17, 10 (1923-24), p xv
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2, 1931, p 465
  • Royal Perth Hospital, Journal, 8 (1954), no 6, p 30, 9 (1956), no 6, p 259, 10 (1957), no 3, p 118, 17 (1972), no 5, p 293
  • West Australian, 8 Mar 1886, 31 Aug, 18 Dec 1931, 10 Feb 1934, 22 Oct 1957.

Citation details

Prue Joske, 'Hancock, William John (1864–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1864
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


26 August, 1931 (aged 67)
London, Middlesex, England

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