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Robert Murray Kavanaugh (1906–1976)

by Gerard Oakes

This article was published:

Robert Murray Kavanaugh (1906-1976), dentist, was born on 18 December 1906 at Wingham, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Herbert Leo Kavanaugh, dentist, and his wife Alice Rose, née Flood. The family moved to Sydney about 1917. Robert was educated at Waverley and Burwood public schools, and privately by a Russian tutor. At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to his father, undertaking study through the Dental Board of New South Wales. Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with dark auburn hair and hazel eyes, he played Rugby Union for Eastern Suburbs District Football Club, and belonged to the Sydney Rowing Club and the Kensington Amateur Athletic Association.

At dusk on 12 January 1929 Kavanaugh was swimming at Bondi Beach when he went to aid 14-year-old Colin James Stewart who was attacked by a 10-ft (3 m) shark and dragged underwater. Kavanaugh grabbed Stewart some 50 yards (46 m) from the beach and pulled him to shore, where the boy was assisted by others while Kavanaugh slipped away. Stewart died in hospital. The coroner referred to Kavanaugh's bravery, stating that he merited 'the highest honour that can be given for such a heroic act . . . his parents . . . have a son of whom they can be justly proud'. Kavanaugh later said of the rescue: 'I guess that's part of one's upbringing, but you'd find it hard to live with yourself if you didn't do what I did. Wouldn't you?' He received the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia's meritorious award in silver (1929) and the Albert Medal (gazetted 17 October 1930).

In June 1930 Kavanaugh was registered as a dental surgeon and by 1933 had set up a practice at Narromine. At the Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 22 April 1933 he married with Catholic rites Mary Sylvia Potter, a stenographer; they were to have four children. Kavanaugh held a flying-licence when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force on 7 October 1940. Disappointed at being commissioned as a flight lieutenant in the Medical Branch (Dental) rather than as a pilot, he was promoted squadron leader in October 1942 and served at bases in Australia. He transferred to the reserve on 9 June 1945 and next year entered the University of Sydney (B.D.S., 1950); he won the Percy A. Ash (1948) and the Annie Praed (1949) prizes. Kavanaugh practised in Sydney until the late 1950s before buying Karalinga, a run-down sheep station on the Wollondilly River. In semi-retirement he spent half the year at Karalinga and the other half working as a locum tenens.

In 1972 Kavanaugh flew to London where Queen Elizabeth II invested him with the George Cross in place of the Albert Medal, which was perceived to have been devalued by a higher award for heroism by civilians. At Narromine, Kavanaugh had participated in the local musical and drama societies with the enthusiasm that characterized his life. Survived by his son and three daughters, he died of cardiac failure on 12 September 1976 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily, second ed revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
  • Surf Life Saving Association of Australia (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1928-29
  • London Gazette, 17 Oct 1930, p 6316
  • Parade, 28 Sept 1975, p 28
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 22 Jan 1929
  • Australasian, 19, 26 Jan 1929
  • Australian, 8 July 1972
  • private information.

Citation details

Gerard Oakes, 'Kavanaugh, Robert Murray (1906–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 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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