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Sir Clarence Arthur (Clarrie) Leggett (1911–1998)

by Helen Gregory

This article was published online in 2022

Sir Clarence Arthur Campbell Leggett (1911–1998), surgeon, was born on 24 July 1911 at Bondi, Sydney, eldest of four children of New South Wales-born Arthur James Leggett, grazier, and his English-born wife Daisy Ethel, née Hodder. The family’s sheep property was at Merriwa in the Upper Hunter region. Clarrie attended Merriwa Public, Armidale High, and East Maitland Boys’ High schools. He qualified in pharmacy (1931) through apprenticeship, enjoying the lectures at the University of Sydney that pharmacy trainees attended with medical students.

Enrolling in the university’s faculty of medicine (MB, BS, 1937), Leggett embarked on a distinguished academic career; his awards included the Haswell prize for zoology (1931); the Renwick (1932), G. S. Caird (1933), and John Harris (1934) scholarships; and first-class honours and the university medal in medicine (1937). He enjoyed cricket and athletics and excelled at hockey, a Blue in that sport (1932) being re-awarded to him in each of the next three years. In 1934 he represented Australia in a hockey Test against New Zealand and the next year played for New South Wales in a match against India.

Beginning his two-year residency at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, in 1937, Leggett continued on the staff in 1939. On 14 December that year at the Central Baptist Church, Sydney, he married Olga Avril Bailey, a nurse. From March 1940 he developed his skills in surgery in Queensland as medical superintendent of the Cairns Base Hospital. He resigned in 1941 to move to Brisbane and enter practice as a surgeon at the Brisbane Clinic (later Craigston), Wickham Terrace.

Military service in World War II intervened. Leggett had been commissioned as a captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Citizen Military Forces, in April 1939. He began full-time duty on 6 January 1942 and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in August. Posted initially to the 116th Australian General Hospital at Charters Towers, he joined the 2/9th AGH in Port Moresby in April 1943. In the New Guinea campaigns of 1943 and 1944, he was a member of a surgical team attached first to the 2/4th Field Ambulance and then to the 2/5th FA. His superiors praised the ‘high degree of surgical skill and initiative under most primitive conditions’ (NAA B883) that he displayed in treating battle casualties at the main dressing station at Nadzab (September 1943) and the advanced dressing station at Geyton’s Hill, near Kankiryo (January 1944). For this work, which saved many lives, and for his cheerfulness, cooperation, and capacity for sustained effort, he was appointed MBE (1945). Back in Australia in March 1944, he was promoted to major in June and posted to the 2/1st Casualty Clearing Station, with which he served in British North Borneo from June to November 1945. He was subsequently on the surgical staff of the 112th Military Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane, before transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 12 April 1946.

Three months later Leggett was back at the Brisbane Clinic, where he developed a large practice in general surgery combined with an honorary appointment at the Brisbane General Hospital. Having observed operations in the United States of America at several institutions—including the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland—he completed the requirements for a fellowship (1949) of the American College of Surgeons. In 1956 he was the first senior visiting surgeon to be appointed to the South Brisbane (later Princess Alexandra) Hospital when it opened that year. He enjoyed teaching in this position and as a special lecturer in surgery at the University of Queensland (MS, 1946); he relinquished both posts in 1968. In his later career, he specialised in breast cancer surgery. He published extensively on medical and surgical topics.

A dedicated fellow (1946) of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Leggett was a member (1960–75) and chairman (1971–75) of its court of examiners, a councillor (1966–75), and junior vice-president (1973–75), but ‘the prize he wished to win, that of the presidency, eluded him’ (Strong 2010, 31). He had a lifelong love of animals and the rural life, breeding Jersey cattle and champion Arabian horses on his property at Esk in the Somerset region, and becoming a respected national and international judge of the equine breed. History was another abiding interest. At the University of Queensland (MA, 1977), he wrote a thesis on Queensland hospitals in the twentieth century. He also published (1994) a two-volume history of the Queensland branch of the British (later Australian) Medical Association (fellow 1985), the first covering the years 1894 to 1960 and the second, 1960 to 1992. In the latter volume, he deplored what he called the ‘intrusion’ of governments and commercial interests into private medical practice; in particular, he thought the concept of bulk-billing patients constituted ‘a very dangerous threat to the freedom of the profession’ (1994, 5–6).

In 1980 Leggett was knighted. He had ‘set an example of excellence with his teaching ability, his brilliance at the bedside as a diagnostician and his sound surgical judgment in the operating theatre’ (Strong 2010, 31). Sir Clarence died on 17 September 1998 at his Kenmore, Brisbane, home and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did their son and two daughters, all three of whom became medical practitioners. The family holds a typescript autobiography and his portrait by Lola McCausland.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Cohn, Michael. ‘Vale Sir Clarence Leggett.’ AMAQ News (Brisbane), November 1988, 34
  • Leggett, Sir Clarence. History of the Queensland Branch of the Australian Medical Association 1960–1992. The Queensland Branch of the Australian Medical Association: Brisbane, 1994
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX48888
  • National Archives of Australia. J1795, 1/230
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives. se10, Sir Clarence Leggett
  • Strong, Russell, ed. A History of Surgery at Princess Alexandra Hospital 1956 to 2006. St Lucia, Qld: Custom Publishing, University of Queensland Press, 2010

Additional Resources

Citation details

Helen Gregory, 'Leggett, Sir Clarence Arthur (Clarrie) (1911–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 17 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 July, 1911
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


17 September, 1998 (aged 87)
Kenmore, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (prostate)

Cultural Heritage

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Military Service
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