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Sir William Wallace Stewart Johnston (1887–1962)

by John V. Hurley

This article was published:

Sir William Wallace Stewart Johnston (1887-1962), physician and army medical officer, was born on 21 December 1887 at South Yarra, Melbourne, second son of William Edward Johnston, a barrister from Scotland who became a county court judge, and his Victorian-born wife Clara Jane, née Wallace. J. S. Johnston was his grandfather. Young Bill was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and Trinity College, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1914; M.D., 1921). He was a resident medical officer at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital when World War I broke out.

On 14 July 1915 Johnston was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the hospital ship, Karoola, he sailed for the Middle East in December and was transferred to the 3rd Field Ambulance in Egypt in February 1916. Next month he was sent to the Western Front where he later joined the 12th Battalion as regimental medical officer. In August, at Mouquet Farm, near Pozières, France, he braved an intense barrage to treat the wounded and was awarded the Military Cross. Promoted major in August 1917, he was mentioned in dispatches. At Hooge, east of Ypres, Belgium, he went out in the open in September to attend the wounded where they lay and continued working until he was severely injured by shell-fire. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross but received the Distinguished Service Order. After recovering in England, he rejoined the battalion in February 1918.

Probably the best, and best-loved, R.M.O. in the A.I.F., Johnston returned to Australia in 1919; his appointment terminated on 27 January 1920. While practising as a consultant, he was one of the honorary medical staff at his old hospital. On 3 December 1923 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married with Presbyterian forms his cousin Jessie Mary Clark, a niece of Alister Clark. Johnston maintained his interest in military medicine, serving in the Militia as commander of the 2nd Field Ambulance in 1928-34 and then as assistant-director of medical services at Army Headquarters. Promoted temporary colonel in 1938, he was called up for full-time duty in October 1939 as assistant director-general of medical services.

Almost concurrently, Johnston was seconded to the A.I.F. and placed in command of the 2nd/2nd Australian General Hospital which he took to Palestine in April 1940. As deputy-director of medical services, I Corps, from 25 January 1941, he was initially responsible for the care of Australian troops in Palestine and Libya. By March he was based in Greece, co-ordinating the medical matters of the 6th Australian Division with those of British and New Zealand formations. When the Germans overran the country in April, he was evacuated via Crete to Egypt. He was appointed C.B.E. (1941) for his part in the campaign.

Johnston had overall command of medical arrangements for the operations against the Vichy French in Syria in June-July. Promoted temporary brigadier in August, he returned home in February 1942. Six months later he was in Port Moresby as D.D.M.S., New Guinea Force. In the fighting along the Kokoda Track and beyond, the terrain posed severe problems in evacuating sick and wounded men, and in transporting medical supplies to the front. Strict anti-malaria precautions had to be enforced. Largely due to Johnston's efforts, the difficulties were finally overcome and he was again mentioned in dispatches. Although he had retained his health, he was not robust and he was sent to Australia in December 'for a spell from the tropics'. Between February and May 1943 he served in North Queensland as D.D.M.S., II Corps. He was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 20 July.

Resuming both his practice and his honorary post at the R.M.H., Johnston was director (1947-56) and chairman (1956-62) of the Melbourne Medical Post-Graduate Committee. In 1947 he was appointed a knight of the Order of St John; in 1957 he became chief commissioner to the St John Ambulance Brigade in Australia. He was a member (1945-52) and medical director (1943-44) of the national council of the Australian Red Cross Society, and vice-president (1958-60) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. In 1960 he was knighted. President (1959-61) of the Graduate Union and a council-member (from 1961) of the University of Melbourne, in 1962 he was awarded an honorary LL.D. He had been elected president of the Melbourne Club in 1945.

Sir William was regarded with respect and affection. His reputation was not due to any outstanding ability as a physician. He was able, hard working and conscientious, but not more so than many of his contemporaries. The true measure of the man lay in his nature and character. His grave and quiet manner, whimsical humour, kindness and humility disguised a spirit of service and a determination to do what he considered fair and just. 'He never did right that he might be seen to do right, but because he could not do otherwise.' Despite the number and the variety of the positions he held, there was never 'one whisper of criticism'. Few have possessed his qualities of 'courage, integrity, humility, faith and kindness'. He taught and inspired others by personal example.

Johnston was tall and distinguished in appearance, and bore a striking physical resemblance to his wife. He died on 21 August 1962 in East Melbourne and was cremated; Jessie and their two sons survived him. Rex Bramleigh's portrait of Johnston is held by the Museum of Medical History, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1938, Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • T. R. Garnett, Man of Roses (Syd, 1990)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 19 Oct 1963, p 677
  • private information.

Citation details

John V. Hurley, 'Johnston, Sir William Wallace Stewart (1887–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 December, 1887
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 August, 1962 (aged 74)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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