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Sir Neville Reginald Howse (1863–1930)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Neville Howse, by Lafayette, 1920s

Neville Howse, by Lafayette, 1920s

National Library of Australia, 23449059

Sir Neville Reginald Howse (1863-1930), surgeon, soldier and politician, was born on 26 October 1863 at Stogursey, Somerset, England, son of Alfred Howse, surgeon, and his wife Lucy Elizabeth, née Conroy. He was educated at Fullard's House School, Taunton, and studied medicine at London Hospital (M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., 1886). Howse was a demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Durham when declining health caused him to migrate to New South Wales. Registered to practise on 11 December 1889 he set up at Newcastle but soon moved to Taree. In 1895 he visited England for postgraduate work in surgery, became F.R.C.S. in 1897, then bought a practice at Orange.

On 17 January 1900 he was commissioned lieutenant in the New South Wales Medical Corps and sailed with the 2nd Contingent for South Africa. While with a mounted infantry brigade in the Orange Free State during the action of Vredefort on 24 July, Howse 'went out under a heavy crossfire and picked up a wounded man and carried him to a place of shelter'. For this action he was awarded the Victoria Cross on 4 June 1901. Howse had been promoted captain in October 1900. Later he was captured by the Boers but released as a non-combatant. After returning to Australia, he went back to South Africa as an honorary major in the Australian Army Medical Corps in February 1902, just as the war ended.

Howse became widely known in Orange for his skill as a surgeon and was twice mayor. On 31 January 1905 he married Evelyn Gertrude Northcote Pilcher at Bathurst. He remained a major in the A.A.M.C. Reserve and in August 1914 was appointed principal medical officer to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to German New Guinea, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. On his own initiative drugs and medical equipment (including a unique dental arrangement) suitable for a tropical campaign were obtained and the troops were protected against typhoid and smallpox. The brief action in New Britain was completed without a single case of serious illness up to 15 October as a result of his thoroughness. The ambitious Howse returned alone just in time to join the Australian Imperial Force and sail with the first convoy as staff officer to Surgeon General (Sir) W. C. D. Williams, director of medical services. During the voyage he won the confidence of the commander of the A.I.F. Major General (Sir) W. T. Bridges and the friendship of Colonel (Sir) Brudenell White.

In December Howse was appointed assistant director of medical services, 1st Australian Division, with the rank of colonel. He was gravely perturbed by the inadequacy and confusion of the Imperial forces' medical plan for the Gallipoli landing and obtained improvements in the arrangements for the evacuation of Australian wounded. When the perilous situation of the 1st Division at the landing made his plans impossible Howse took personal charge of the evacuation of the wounded men crowding the beach under increasing shell-fire, 'giving and disregarding orders in a manner quite shocking but strangely productive of results. Shells and bullets he completely disregarded', wrote White. 'To the wounded he was gentleness itself'. By 3 a.m. on 26 April the beach was clear but Howse continued to superintend evacuation to the ships for two more days.

To Howse the medical service was no mere humane amenity for soldiers but a fundamental of fighting efficiency. So he strove to improve sanitation and food, to expedite the return of the wounded to units and, after Gallipoli, to combat venereal disease and to resist every attempt to lower the physical standard of the A.I.F. On Gallipoli he established the Anzac Medical Society which met regularly to disseminate knowledge among his officers. In July 1915 he was appointed C.B. and in September was given command of the medical services, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, as deputy director; from November he was director of medical services of the A.I.F. In this appointment, which he had been strongly urging, Howse could ensure the independence of the A.A.M.C. from the British medical authorities and give it the cohesion and leadership which it had lacked.

When the infantry divisions went to France in 1916 Howse set up his headquarters with A.I.F. administrative headquarters in London. He retained control of the A.A.M.C. in Egypt and Palestine, made frequent visits to the A.I.F. in France and reported each month to the director general of medical services in Melbourne. If he had much to learn about the vast, complex organism of the army at war, he revealed a capacity to learn and grow with the magnitude of his task. Mistakes were made but Howse never lost the confidence of the commander of the A.I.F., Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, nor of Brudenell White. Among his achievements were recognition by the army of the need for direct access by the director of medical services to the general officer commanding the A.I.F., and his acceptance by the War Office as chief medical officer of the A.I.F. He established clear policies for the A.A.M.C. in line with those of the Royal Army Medical Corps and preserved the independence of his corps. When Major General (Sir) John Monash ordered A.A.M.C. officers on his headquarters to wear the 3rd Division colour patch instead of their own, Howse forced Monash to withdraw the order; he won the same battle against Major General (Sir) Talbot Hobbs. In January 1917 he was promoted major general and appointed K.C.B. Howse gave evidence before the Dardanelles Commission in 1917. The arrangements for the wounded at the landing he characterized as 'so inadequate that they amounted to criminal negligence' on the part of the Imperial authorities.

In the field, Howse had introduced surgical teams and had supported the work of Major A. W. Holmes à Court in developing resuscitation teams with each division. His reorganization of the field ambulances in two sections, rejected by the War Office in 1916, was readopted in the A.I.F. in September 1918. In October Howse went briefly to Australia to advise the minister of defence on A.I.F. affairs and on crippled returned soldiers. He returned to London in February 1919 to assist on the medical side of repatriation. He was mentioned in dispatches, and was appointed K.C.M.G. and knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1919.

Howse returned home in January 1920 but his resumption of private practice was short lived. He had been appointed chairman of a committee on the reorganization of the Army Medical Service which began work in 1921 but in July 1921 he was made D.G.M.S. as a regular major general stationed in Melbourne. From the day of his return he had spoken out in public on the achievement of the A.A.M.C. in maintaining the health of the A.I.F. and had insisted that the same must be done for all Australians in peacetime. As a regular officer could not campaign in public he resigned in November 1922 and was elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Calare, which included Orange, as a member of the National Party. He was then reappointed D.G.M.S., on a part-time basis, until he entered the cabinet in 1925.

He was a member of the Australian delegation to the fourth assembly of the League of Nations in 1923 and commissioned by the government to inquire into the medical examination of migrants to Australia and into the Spahlinger treatment of tuberculosis. From January 1925 to April 1927 Howse was minister for defence and health and minister in charge of repatriation. He accompanied the prime minister, S. M. (Viscount) Bruce to the Imperial Conference in 1926 but was taken ill and returned to Australia. He relinquished defence and health but remained in the cabinet as assistant minister without portfolio. Nevertheless he continued to administer repatriation and even acted as secretary to the cabinet. In February 1928 he again became minister for health and repatriation and also for home and territories. He was campaign manager for the 1929 election in which he lost his seat. In his brief parliamentary career he was recognized as champion of the returned servicemen and as a pioneer in public health. He spoke on the need for the Commonwealth to improve public health, on the treatment of cancer and venereal disease, maternity allowances and the welfare of returned servicemen. With the purchase of £100,000 worth of radium in 1928 Howse set up one of the world's first radium banks. The first conference of cancer organizations in Australia was inspired by him and he was responsible for the transfer of the Institute of Anatomy to Canberra. He helped to found the Federal Health Council in 1925 and the College of Surgeons of Australasia in 1928.

Howse went to England for medical treatment in 1930. He died of cancer on 19 September 1930 and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery, London, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters.

Neville Howse was an Englishman who expressed the nascent Australian nationalism vigorously and directly. He was a pragmatist who nevertheless saw far ahead, a surgeon who had a flair for soldiering, an organizer who had deep insight into the essential relationship between the medical service and the force it served and who had the courage and persistence to establish policies not always understood by combatant officers. His confidence, good humour and diplomacy were matched by his shrewd appreciation of character. If his ambition carried him far, it was motivated by his recognition of human need in war and peace and sustained by confidence in his own capacity to help. His successes, in the words of another great D.G.M.S., Colonel R. M. Downes, 'made him one of the outstanding Australians of the Great War … one of the most remarkable and self-sacrificing medical administrators any military force has ever known'.

Memorials to Howse are at the Orange sub-branch of the Returned Servicemen's League of Australia, in the Orange Base Hospital and in the Australian Institute of Anatomy. His portrait by James Quinn is in the Australian War Memorial and a painting of Howse winning the V.C., by William Dargie, is in the headquarters of the R.A.M.C., London.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • S. S. Mackenzie, The Australians at Rabaul: The Capture and Administration of the German Possessions in the Southern Pacific (Syd, 1927)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • C. E. W. Bean, Two Men I Knew (Syd, 1957)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 31 Jan 1931–28 Mar 1931
  • Dardanelles Commission evidence (Australian War Memorial)
  • Butler collection (Australian War Memorial)
  • Howse collection (Australian War Memorial).

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Howse, Sir Neville Reginald (1863–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 June 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

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