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William Keith Inglis (1888–1960)

by Yvonne Cossart

This article was published:

William Keith Inglis (1888-1960), professor of pathology, was born on 11 February 1888 at Redfern, Sydney, third son of native-born parents John Thomas Inglis, auctioneer, and his wife Australia, née Renwick. Keith's academic progress through Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (M.B., 1911; Ch.M., 1912; M.D., 1917) was enlivened by his enthusiastic participation in athletics, cricket, hockey and rowing; he was awarded a Blue for being a member of the VIII which won the intervarsity event in 1908. At the Congregational Church, Summer Hill, on 28 August 1914 he married Jessie Fulton McPherson (d.1933); they were to have three daughters and a son.

During his residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Inglis had impressed his medical and surgical mentors. While demonstrating in the university's pathology department and serving in the Militia as senior medical officer, Bathurst camp, he wrote his M.D. thesis on 'Agglutination After the Administration of Typhoid and Paratyphoid Vaccines' which won the university medal and attracted the interest of the military authorities. On 20 July 1916 he was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. By August 1917 he was stationed in France. As a pathologist with the 3rd Australian General Hospital, Abbeville, and the 2nd A.G.H., Boulogne, he performed numerous post-mortem examinations. The problems he encountered with dysentery and trench fever led to his first publications.

In London, from October 1918, Inglis collected and prepared pathological examples (from army surgical and autopsy material) which could be shipped to Australian medical museums. Letters to his wife discussed his increasing fondness for pathological work and his ambition to become a specialist, 'even though the remuneration would be much less . . . than I could earn in private practice'. His personal letters also revealed homesickness, as well as scant sympathy for the British Establishment at a time of postwar industrial unrest—'Thank God I am a non-conformist! Thank God I am not an Englishman!' In May 1919 he arrived in Australia with his specimens which were sent to museums in every State. Major Inglis's A.I.F. appointment terminated on 13 July and he returned to the university's pathology department in 1920.

Over the next decade his teaching load, research interests and responsibility for patients all grew, particularly after his appointment in 1922 as honorary pathologist (director of pathology from 1926) at Sydney Hospital. He later argued that his hospital and university posts were complementary, 'for the students who attended my classes at the medical School were thus enabled to make themselves familiar with clinical pathology and the problems of morbid anatomy as revealed by post mortem examinations'.

In the 1920s Inglis published several collaborative studies, but his main preoccupation was with the nature of the pre-cancerous state. His book, Paget's Disease of the Nipple (Oxford, 1936), contained a wealth of clinical photographs and micrographs of the same lesions. The cases (which included skin, genital and alimentary lesions, and also breast cancer) were arranged as if in a museum exhibition to show that 'cancers start, not by malignant changes in an individual cell, neighbours of which remain normal, but by neoplastic changes affecting many cells in the same area'. The style was clear and didactic, and his ideas were to retain their currency.

Meanwhile, at Sydney Hospital, Inglis was one of the group responsible for the establishment in 1933 of the Kanematsu Memorial Institute of Pathology, with its charter to promote medical research. The generosity of Toranosuke Kitamura and fellow Japanese benefactors was matched by the idealism of Sydney Jamieson and Inglis who saw an opportunity to develop a centre of experimental medical research and pathology within a clinical institution. Almost from the start, the concept aroused hostility from administrators in the hospital and the Department of Public Health who believed that research had no place in patient care, and, indeed, was inimical to it. Inglis was part-time director of the institute in 1933-36.

His personal base remained the university's pathology department where in 1936 he succeeded D. A. Welsh in the chair. Inglis was unwavering in his belief that pathology was the essential basis of clinical training and steadfastly defended the concept that advances in patient care could best be fostered if fundamental research were conducted within hospitals in addition to universities. His influence was pivotal in maintaining the viability of research at the Kanematsu.

With the outbreak of World War II, the responsibility for service pathology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital fell to Inglis. His opinion in difficult cases was highly valued by his peers. Characteristically, he examined microscope sections and formed a view before reading the clinical history, and his reports always indicated any lingering doubts he had about his diagnosis. This intellectual integrity was the hallmark of his work and it influenced generations of pathologists associated with the Sydney school. Inglis's extra workload consumed his energies and left little time for personal research. He began to write about medical education and entertained hopes that, after the war, academic pathology would assume a greater role in the teaching hospitals. His hopes were dashed when the R.P.A.H. board appointed a non-university pathologist, making clear its rejection of his position on experimental research and its fear of an academic takeover.

At the Congregational Church, Killara, on 15 June 1934 Inglis had married Madge Australia, sister of Ellice Nosworthy. Madge continued the tradition of inviting fourth-year medical students to tea in the garden of the Inglis's North Shore home. Inglis was a founding member (1938) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and a director (1946-60) of Sydney Hospital. He retired from the university in 1952. While speaking in defence of the independence of the Kanematsu at a Sydney Hospital board-meeting, he collapsed and died on 26 January 1960; in accordance with his wish, his body was delivered to the university's medical school. His wife survived him, as did the children of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (Syd, 1988)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 6, no 2, Dec 1985
  • Inglis papers (privately held).

Citation details

Yvonne Cossart, 'Inglis, William Keith (1888–1960)', 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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