Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samuel Thomas Knaggs (1842–1921)

by C. G. McDonald and Ruth Teale

This article was published:

Samuel Thomas Knaggs (1842-1921), medical practitioner, was born in July 1842 at Tipperary, Ireland, son of Robert Corbet Knaggs (1809-1877) and his wife Phoebe, née Maiben. He arrived at Sydney in 1848 with his parents. In April 1855 his father was registered as a medical practitioner and settled in Newcastle as a chemist and druggist.

Knaggs was educated in Newcastle and studied medicine in Dublin (F.R.C.S., 1871) and Aberdeen (M.B., Ch.M., 1871; M.D., 1873). After service as resident medical officer at the Adelaide Hospital, Dublin, and visits to Paris and Vienna, he was registered on 8 January 1872 as a medical practitioner in New South Wales and practised in Newcastle until 1880. In July 1874 he had been appointed government medical officer and next year became salaried medical officer at Newcastle Hospital. He was interested in public health and often contributed to the Newcastle Chronicle and the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. In 1875 he failed to establish a society similar to the Australian Health Society in Melbourne, but became editor of the New South Wales Medical Gazette. In October 1877 he started the short-lived quarterly, Australian Practitioner. A fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1878 he was chairman of its medical section in 1888-89.

After a visit to Europe Knaggs began practising at Sydney about 1883. He was lecturer in clinical surgery at the University of Sydney and honorary surgeon at Prince Alfred Hospital until 1893. In August 1885 he was appointed to the New South Wales Board of Health and in 1887-92 examiner in anatomy and physiology for the Board of Technical Education. He was also active in the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association and its president in 1887-88, and 1892 joint honorary secretary with Professor (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart of the third session of the Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia held in Sydney. He was sometime medical officer of the Department of Public Instruction, a member of the Railways Medical Board and a constant advocate for a ministry of public health. He edited the Australasian Medical Gazette from 1895 until 1901 when he visited Japan. He then gradually retired from practice. In the volunteer movement he had become surgeon to the naval brigade in 1872 and rose to the rank of fleet surgeon, retiring with a decoration for long service.

Knaggs crusaded against medical quacks and spiritualists. He cultivated his skill as a conjurer and gave public entertainments for charity at which he imitated 'sundry so-called spiritual feats, like levitation'. A prodigious pamphleteer he wrote on such subjects as phrenology, mediums and their dupes, his own recreations, and common complaints and their simple remedies. His best-known work was Dr. de Lion, Clairvoyant. Confessions of a Vagabond Life in Australia, as Narrated by Maiben Brook (Sydney, 1895), a novel exposing how clairvoyants preyed upon human gullibility. He long insisted on the revision of legislation for the registration of deaths 'to prevent unqualified persons from amateur dabbling in medicine and surgery'. He continued to write articles for medical journals and in 1917 emerged from retirement to fight an outbreak of meningitis at Collarenebri. He died at Paddington on 6 April 1921 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by five of the seven daughters of his first wife Helena Charlotte, née Read, whom he had married in 1874, and by his second wife Amy Elfreda Bolekman whom he had married in 1899. An obituarist placed Knaggs among 'those who “toil terribly” in the daily “roast and boil” work of medicine and surgery'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. W. Champion, ‘The Newcastle Hospital: Part 4’, Monthly Journal (Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society), vol 6, Feb 1952, pp 73-80, ‘Part 5‘, vol 6, Mar 1952, pp 93-96, and ‘Part 6‘, vol 6, Apr 1952, pp 102-10
  • W. J. Goold, ‘Personalities of the Past’, Monthly Journal (Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society), vol 10, part 10, July 1956, pp 149-56
  • ‘Obituary: Samuel Thomas Knaggs‘, Medical Journal of Australia, 16 Apr 1921, pp 320-21
  • ‘Presidential Address’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 55, 1921
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Apr 1921.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. G. McDonald and Ruth Teale, 'Knaggs, Samuel Thomas (1842–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


July, 1842
Tipperary, Tipperary, Ireland


6 April, 1921 (aged 78)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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