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William Elphinstone Kay (1888–1941)

by W. D. Refshauge

This article was published:

William Elphinstone Kay (1888-1941), surgeon, was born on 3 January 1888 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, second son of Robert Kay, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Christina, née Elphinstone, both born in Sydney of Scottish parents. He was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney (M.B., 2nd class honours, 1911; Ch.M., 1919). He was a fine athlete representing St Andrew's College in various sports and gaining a rowing blue. In 1912 he became a resident medical officer at Sydney Hospital; next year he was medical and surgical registrar and in 1914 assistant medical superintendent. Having been a member of the University Scouts, he was appointed captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1913.

On 20 August 1914 Kay enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was appointed captain in the 1st Field Ambulance. He served in that unit at Gallipoli, landing at approximately 9.30 a.m. on 25 April 1915. Except for a short period acting as regimental medical officer to the 1st Battalion in June, he remained with the 1st F.A. on Gallipoli, displaying great courage throughout. Evacuated on 1 September with enteric fever, he rejoined his unit at Lemnos in October when he was promoted temporary major. In December he returned to Egypt where he remained after his unit's departure for France in March, working with the 3rd Australian General Hospital. He rejoined the unit at Buire in November 1916.

Kay was promoted major in June 1916, temporary lieutenant-colonel and officer commanding the 2nd F.A. in April 1917 and lieutenant-colonel in September 1917. He made an enormous impression on the officers and men of the 2nd F.A. as well as with his superiors. One of his officers wrote: 'He had the efficiency of the unit at heart and the well-being and comfort of his men constantly in the fore-front of his mind' and especially so when conditions were severe. His outstanding service at Gallipoli, on the Somme and in Flanders was recognized by a mention in dispatches, and in June 1918 by award of the Distinguished Service Order 'for marked ability, zeal and devotion to duty' between 22 September 1917 and 24 February 1918. 'When in charge of the Advanced Dressing Station at Ypres, Lieutenant-Colonel Kay was constantly up and down the line, working continually under bad weather conditions and heavy enemy shelling. His disregard of personal danger and his constant attention to the maintenance of all posts and lines of evacuation were responsible for the speedy evacuation and comfort of the wounded.' In September 1918 he left the 2nd F.A. to join the 2nd A.G.H. of which he became acting officer-in-charge in November. He returned to Australia in December in the Argyllshire as senior medical officer.

On return to civilian life Kay commenced practice at Glen Innes. On 19 January 1921 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Margaret Mitchell McLeod, daughter of Scottish immigrants Dr James and Christina McLeod. Kay returned to Sydney in 1923 to general medical practice at Waverley and in 1930 to surgical practice in Macquarie Street. In 1923 he was appointed honorary assistant surgeon at the Sydney Hospital and in 1931 clinical tutor. In 1931 he gained his fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. During World War I Kay had developed a great admiration for the Australian soldier which he carried into civilian practice, earning him the esteem of all his patients. At Sydney Hospital, 'big Bill Kay' was held in respect by staff and students alike for his ability, cheerfulness and humanity.

Kay remained with the A.A.M.C., Australian Military Forces. In 1934 he became assistant director of Medical services, 1st Division, with the rank of colonel. In the midst of his busy professional life and his outside interests, he managed to play golf, was fond of surfing and was a warm-hearted family man.

In May 1940 in the rank of colonel Kay was posted to command the 2/5th A.G.H., A.I.F., and had the responsibility for establishing and training it. His charm, personality and ability to command ensured that it was 'a happy and contented unit'. The 2/5th A.G.H. arrived in the Middle East in December 1940 but in March 1941 Kay was ordered to prepare the unit to move. They embarked at Alexandria, Egypt, on 10 April, four days after Germany had invaded Greece and, arriving in Athens on 12 April, proceeded to establish a hospital at Kephissia. Kay ensured that the 'unit worked with all possible speed and the day after arrival at the site was able to accommodate fifty patients'.

It was soon apparent that the campaign in Greece was failing but throughout the confusion of the next week Kay's hospital continued to receive, treat and evacuate casualties. On 18 April Major General (Sir) Samuel Burston, director of medical services, A.I.F., informed Kay that he was the senior medical officer of the Australian medical services in Athens. On the night of 21 April Kay learned that the original plan for the 2/5th A.G.H. to remain and become prisoners of war, except for the nursing staff who were to be evacuated, had been abandoned: he was to be sent to Egypt because of his great experience. Kay arranged for a small party to stay and maintain the hospital while the rest were evacuated. On 24 April Kay went to Piraeus to board the Neon Hellas which was embarking wounded and others. Late in the afternoon the ship was hit by a bomb. Kay was severely wounded in the head and his right arm was severed below the elbow. He died of his wounds on 26 April 1941 at Kephissia and was buried there. His wife, son and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (Canb, 1961)
  • University of Sydney Medical School, Senior Year Book, 1938, and Medical Journal, Nov 1941
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 July 1941
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Sept 1915, 15 Oct 1941
  • war diaries, 1st and 2nd Field Ambulance, AIF and 2/5th Australian General Hospital (Australian War Memorial)
  • W. E. Kay file (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

W. D. Refshauge, 'Kay, William Elphinstone (1888–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 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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