Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Michael Kelly (1905–1967)

by Richard Travers

This article was published:

Michael Kelly (1905-1967), rheumatologist, was born on 16 April 1905 at Mintaro, South Australia, son of Michael Kelly, farmer, and his wife Rose, née McManus. The seventh of ten children, Michael received his early education from his parents. He won scholarships to Christian Brothers' College, Wakefield Street, Adelaide (dux 1921), and to the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1928) where he was influenced by the professor of anatomy Frederic Wood Jones.

After hospital residencies in Adelaide, Kelly was a general practitioner (1931-41) at Bunbury, Western Australia. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Perth, on 20 January 1932 he married Olive Marjorie Woolcock. He served as a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, and was based in Perth (1941-44) and Melbourne (1945-46). In 1946-47 he spent a year in the department of anatomy, University of Melbourne, working with Professor (Sir) Sydney Sunderland, then entered private practice, initially with clinical-assistant appointments at the Royal Melbourne and St Vincent's hospitals. He took great interest in the physical aspects of treatment and in the pastoral care of his patients at a time when it was generally held that nothing much could be done for arthritis. His practice, clinical and medico-legal, became very busy.

Kelly wrote extensively on a wide range of medical, political, historical, ethical and literary matters. His best work concerned the care of inflamed joints and the neurological aspects of pain and inflammation. He was awarded an M.D. (University of Adelaide) in 1945 for his thesis on 'Interstitial Neuritis and the Pressure Theory of Pain'; and his study, 'The Prevention and Treatment of Polyarthritis by Continuous and Active Immobilization of Joints', won the Geigy prize in 1958. His view of the nature of fibrositis, on which his international reputation rests, appeared in the British Medical Association's Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases in 1945-46. 'The Pathology and Treatment of Fibrositis' was awarded the 1946 Buckston Browne prize by the Harveian Society of London. Kelly brought the experimental observation of J. H. Kellgren and Sir Thomas Lewis into the clinical area, proposing a neurological model of fibrositis.

In 1951 Kelly presented this data to the European Congress of Rheumatology, held at Barcelona, Spain. He spoke on the use of phenylbutazone in the treatment of arthritis at the Eighth World Congress of Rheumatology, in Geneva in 1953, and on the disadvantages of corticosteroid therapy at the Tenth International Congress of the International League Against Rheumatism, in Rome in 1961. In the following year he became a member of the New York Academy of Sciences.

A foundation federal delegate (1956) of the Australian Rheumatism Association, Kelly was elected treasurer at the inaugural meeting of the Victorian branch in 1957, but held no further office. Although well known internationally, he always felt that he was not accepted locally. He offended many people by the vigour of his crusade (in which he was mostly correct) against the inappropriate use of the newly introduced drug, cortisone, and by his unqualified advocacy of phenylbutazone. He raised the eyebrows of the medical establishment by calling his rooms in East Melbourne the 'Institute of Rheumatology'. He wrote repeatedly (and sometimes publicly) to State and Federal ministers and to medical authorities, harassing them on medico-political issues, and he frequently expressed extreme religious and social views. These actions, however, should be seen as symptomatic of his manic-depressive illness.

In his last decade Kelly changed from being stimulatingly provocative to being merely disputatious and quarrelsome. He still worked hard, read widely, wrote much, and retained his membership of the Savage Club, but his manner formed a sad contrast to the heady days at Bunbury when he had also played tennis, golf and bowls, and was an important and admired member of society. Throughout his life he never lost his religious conviction and attended Mass each day, even in his final years. Survived by his wife, four sons and two of his four daughters, he died of myocardial degeneration on 5 April 1967 in his home at Kew and was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Travers, 'Michael Kelly, MD (Adel.): Pioneer Australian Rheumatologist', in H. Attwood and G. Kenny (eds), Reflections on Medical History and Health in Australia (Melb, 1987)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 9 Sept 1967
  • Nation (Sydney), 7 Mar 1964
  • Australian Medical Association (Victorian Branch) Archives, Melbourne.

Citation details

Richard Travers, 'Kelly, Michael (1905–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 April 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]


16 April, 1905
Mintaro, South Australia, Australia


5 April, 1967 (aged 61)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.