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Esmond Venner (Bill) Keogh (1895–1970)

by Lyndsay Gardiner and Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Esmond Venner Keogh (1895-1970), by unknown photographer, 1946

Esmond Venner Keogh (1895-1970), by unknown photographer, 1946

Australian War Memorial, 126249

Esmond Venner (Bill) Keogh (1895-1970), soldier, medical scientist and administrator, was born on 2 November 1895 at Malvern, Melbourne, third of four children of Esmond Joseph Keogh, financial agent, and his wife Helen Beatrice, née Moore, both Victorian born. The father's estate agency foundered, the parents separated about 1900 and the father worked as a bush labourer in Western Australia. Supporting the family, Helen found congenial employment looking after four orphaned children. Esmond and his brother lived for a time with an uncle, then with their mother again. Helen was determined that her children should have access to higher education. Esmond attended a Catholic parish school before becoming a boarder at the Sisters of Mercy school at Mornington. He was later sent to St Stanislaus' College, Bathurst, New South Wales, where he discovered an interest in art and music.

To the consternation of the wider Keogh family, Esmond won a scholarship to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and enrolled in 1910, a shy, quiet Catholic boy. His academic performance was mediocre and the school left little mark on him. He had fallen under the guidance of his beloved elder sister Lesbia, a law student and poet who introduced him to Frederick Sinclaire's Free Religious Fellowship and the Victorian Socialist Party. By 1914 he was calling himself a Unitarian and was deeply concerned about inequality and social justice. He had uncertainly enrolled in agricultural science at the University of Melbourne. On 13 November, just 19, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted to the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance.

Keogh embarked for Egypt on 2 February 1915. At Heliopolis he nursed some of the first British casualties following the Gallipoli landings. From late May to late June his unit was employed at Anzac as a labour force before retiring to Lemnos. Early in August they returned to Anzac and were immediately engaged in the chaotic rescue of casualties from the 4th Brigade, A.I.F. On 10 November the 3rd L.H.F.A. was withdrawn to Lemnos for rest, then to Egypt on Boxing Day. After three months at Heliopolis, Keogh returned to Melbourne, claiming to be a medical student. He rejected his former semi-pacifist outlook and was posted to No.9 Company of the 3rd [Division] Australian Machine Gun Battalion. In August 1916 he sailed for England.

From then on 'Es' was known to his digger mates and—family apart—to his adult associates as 'Bill' Keogh. He was sent to the Western Front in November and in 1917 took part in the battle of Messines, Belgium (while attached to the 9th Field Ambulance), and in the advances in the Ypres salient. Promoted temporary corporal, he was wounded in his right hand on 12 October and spent a month in hospital in England. His Military Medal was gazetted in February 1918. Returning to his unit in April, he was promoted temporary sergeant in July and took part in the victorious advance from August (including the capture of Mont St Quentin, France). On 29 September at Quennemont Farm he led a section without an officer, setting an 'example of the highest courage and devotion to duty', and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Embarking for home in March 1919, he was discharged on 9 July. His sister Estelle had served in Queen Alexandra's Military Nursing Service and was awarded the Royal Red Cross (1918).

Keogh rarely spoke of his war experiences, once remarking that Martin Boyd had written all that needed to be said about the prolongation of the war and the 'brutes in authority' who kept 'the blood-lust simmering'. He was emotionally and nervously drained, and for more than a year lived aimlessly on the fringe of bohemia, taking up his left-wing friends again, who now included Guido Baracchi. Bill spent most of 1921 working on a dairy farm which his alcoholic father briefly held as a soldier settler, six miles (9.6 km) from Maffra, Gippsland. In 1922 he began the medical degree at the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1927). He struggled through the first three years, but graduated with honours. Inspired by Professor (Sir) Peter MacCallum, he was largely responsible for a masterly student report on desirable reforms in the curriculum, including much greater attention to pathology. A month before his finals, Lesbia had died. His mother, with whom he usually lived, was his constant charge until her death in 1951.

Deciding that development of medical research, especially graduate training in microbiology, biochemistry and bacteriology, was all-important, Keogh joined the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Parkville, in May 1928 and became a pathologist 'training at the bench'. Until 1934, however, he spent most of his time working as a relieving officer at interstate stations. Thus at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, and Bendigo, Victoria, he was faced with the problem of miners' phthisis and other matters of public health. He developed a sense of mission, retaining his political sympathies but sceptical of any political nostrum. Although he was to remain an atheist, his career would be based on the teachings of Christianity, with public medicine as his chosen practical means of service.

Late in 1935 Keogh established his own unit in the C.S.L. and was seconded part time to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to work on viruses. A firm friendship grew with the director Charles Kellaway whose deputy (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet sensed a rival. In 1936-41 Keogh published eighteen papers on viruses, two in collaboration with Burnet.

During World War II, Burnet later remarked, Keogh 'went up like a rocket'. On the war's outbreak he was attending medical conferences in the United States of America. He made many valuable contacts, while revelling in galleries, concerts and the theatre; he also formed friendships with Katharine Hepburn and John Steinbeck. Hurrying home, he was gazetted major in the Australian Army Medical Corps on 13 October and in November was appointed in charge of pathology in the 2nd/2nd Australian General Hospital, which arrived in the Middle East in April 1940. Disease was the immediate problem: a generation of modern Australian pathologists was bred in the hospitals there. Keogh and two others wrote an important paper identifying the type of local dysentery. With R. R. Andrew and (Sir) Ian Wood he attended a course on tropical medicine given by Professor Saul Adler, a fellow of the Royal Society, which had effects of the utmost importance. In support of Major General (Sir) Samuel Burston, to whom he was in practice 'first assistant', and (Sir) Neil Fairley, he contributed to dissuading General (Earl) Wavell from committing any large force in Macedonia, for fear of malaria. By the time casualties began to pour in from North Africa, Keogh had worked on solving the problem of storing blood serum and the provision of blood banks. He also co-operated with the young (Sir) Benjamin Rank in developing plastic surgery. Keogh was considerate to his subordinates, developing his gift for choosing the right man for the right job. He was known affectionately as 'the old feller'.

Before returning to Australia in March 1942, Keogh was appointed army adviser in pathology. He became director of pathology (from October) in charge of preventive medicine and was promoted lieutenant colonel (November). He was also given charge of hygiene (May 1943) and entomology (March 1944). Based at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, he constantly travelled, controlling the establishment of pathology laboratories in hospitals and appointments thereto. Malaria was the critical problem: casualties in 1942-43 were catastrophic. Via the Land Headquarters Medical Research Unit at Cairns, Queensland, Fairley planned the strategy, Keogh the tactics, and daily atebrin was forced on the troops—the result a triumph. Keogh's other major achievement was to follow his hunch about penicillin, as yet unproven, and appoint P. L. Bazeley to supervise its production, thus enabling Australia to be among the first in the world to use it extensively.

In April 1945-January 1946 Keogh was medical adviser on the Australian Military Mission to Washington. He was both seeking the most advanced knowledge and creating opportunities for his 'kindergarten'. He spent much of his time in the Pentagon, conferring with senior medical administrators, incidentally arranging Carnegie and Rockefeller grants and, in January-February in England, Nuffield grants, for medical research by Australians. That year, when the government appointed him observer of experimental testing at Bikini Atoll, he was prevented from attending by American authorities, presumably because of his left-wing background.

Keogh returned to the C.S.L. and in the next four years contributed five major articles, three of them in Nature. At the beginning of large-scale development of medical research, he joined the advisory committee of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, and was prominent in discussions of the role of the new John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University, Canberra. He and Burnet formed a close working arrangement. Burnet recognized Keogh's strengths, especially in advising on human problems, and referred to him as both 'a guardian angel and a grey eminence'. Keogh was reaching the peak of his influence as an 'enabler' on many Commonwealth and State funding bodies, and dominating selections for appointments. His particular interest was Fairfield Hospital; he was appointed its consultant microbiologist in 1947 and encouraged research on infectious diseases.

In order to head Victoria's contribution to the national campaign against tuberculosis, Keogh resigned from the C.S.L. in 1949 to join the Department of Health. The structure of the campaign, notably mass chest X-rays, was in place; his task was to make it work. He kept power in his own hands, summoning his consultative committee only once. When he was satisfied that, although morbidity figures had not yet markedly declined, it was statistically clear that the campaign was successful, he resigned in 1955. Keogh had also been co-operating with Burnet on the viral infection, poliomyelitis. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A., discoverer in 1950 of the appropriate vaccine, contacted Burnet. He and Keogh sent Bazeley to Pittsburgh to equip himself for the campaign. In 1955 Keogh spent six weeks in the U.S.A. ensuring agreement on production methods. He then helped to arrange production at the C.S.L. and double-checking at Fairfield, where he had been responsible for creating an Epidemiological Research Unit under A. A. Ferris, and joined the N.H.M.R.C. supervising committee. Immunization began in July 1956. Within a few years polio cases notified Australia-wide dropped virtually to zero.

From 1950 Keogh had been an executive-member of the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria. In 1955 he was appointed part-time medical adviser, in effect director. The council was largely inert; Keogh saw that it needed leadership and money. He recruited (Sir) William Kilpatrick as fund-raiser; within five years the council's annual budget was almost ten times as large and a huge voluntary support-movement had been gathered. The council's emphases were on research, patient care and public education; much of the public fear and ignorance about cancer was dispersed. Keogh wrote innumerable compassionate letters to those stricken. Extensive smear-testing for early detection of cancer of the cervix was introduced in his time. One of his last protégés was the distinguished researcher Donald Metcalf. Keogh retired in 1968 but remained busy, especially in pursuing his lasting interest in statistics.

Keogh's chief pastime was racing and betting. He worked hard at form and perhaps more than paid his way; he even backed Wotan at 100/1 to win the 1936 Melbourne Cup. But his 'infallible' system failed him in the end. Bridge and poker were other favourite relaxations. He also had wide cultural interests: his taste in art was modernist and he knew most of the 'rebels and precursors' of the 1920s-40s, his love for music (classical and jazz) was deep, and he was uncommonly widely read.

He had great capacity for making friends, among them the wives and children of his friends. He was 'everybody's Uncle Bill', giving frequent lavish presents and helping the young in their troubles. His one remaining close family association was with his sister Estelle and her daughters. Keogh had homosexual inclinations. When at last in the 1950s he had a flat to himself, he had one loving relationship which lasted for several years, and there were probably other liaisons. If he had earlier associations, they were very discreet indeed. Bill Keogh accepted no honours: he despised the trappings of status and authority, and avoided publicity. He destroyed his own papers. In May 1970 he joined the huge Anti-Vietnam Moratorium March, and laboured to finish the distance. He died, of cancer, on 30 September that year at Parkville. His body was bequeathed to the anatomy department, University of Melbourne. He had asked that no obituaries be written and no memorial raised, but his friends and colleagues arranged a memorial gathering at which Rank gave the address. The Anti-Cancer Council named its headquarters after Keogh. He had never been interested in accumulating money; he gave nearly all his objets d'art to his friends and left an estate of a mere $6460.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Gardiner, E. V. Keogh (Melb, 1990), and for bibliography.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner and Geoffrey Serle, 'Keogh, Esmond Venner (Bill) (1895–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Esmond Venner Keogh (1895-1970), by unknown photographer, 1946

Esmond Venner Keogh (1895-1970), by unknown photographer, 1946

Australian War Memorial, 126249

Life Summary [details]


2 November, 1895
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


30 September, 1970 (aged 74)
Parkville, 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.