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Sir William Colin MacKenzie (1877–1938)

by Monica MacCallum

This article was published:

Sir William Colin MacKenzie (1877-1938), orthopaedist, comparative anatomist and philanthropist, was born on 9 March 1877 at Kilmore, Victoria, youngest of six children of John McKenzie, draper, and his wife Anne, née McKay, both Scottish born. His formal education began at Kilmore State School and was continued, thanks to a three-year scholarship, at Scotch College, Melbourne, from which he qualified for matriculation, with honours in Greek, in December 1893. He entered the medical school at the University of Melbourne next year and graduated M.B. in December 1898, obtaining first-class honours in surgery, obstetric medicine and diseases of women and children in February 1899. (He did not take out his B.S. degree until 1902.)

A year as resident surgeon at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital was followed by two years as senior resident surgeon at the (Royal) Children's Hospital during which he obtained his M.D. (1901, by examination) and began publishing in professional journals. At the Children's he came under the influence of Peter Bennie, who was well known for his management of the tuberculous hip-joint, and whom he greatly admired. He then went into general practice at the Hay Market, conveniently close to the university and the Melbourne and Children's hospitals. He was also in 1902 appointed honorary demonstrator in anatomy at the university, thereby beginning a long association with the department of anatomy, later as senior demonstrator and lecturer in applied anatomy.

In 1903 MacKenzie went to Europe for further study. He sat the examinations for the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in October and was elected fellow on 15 December 1903, having been proposed by Richard Berry, then lecturer in anatomy at the college, later to be his professor at the University of Melbourne. He also visited two outstanding orthopaedic centres to study their methods; one, headed by O. Vulpius, at Heidelberg, Germany, and the other by Robert Jones, at Liverpool, England. This interest in orthopaedics was possibly connected with the severe epidemic of poliomyelitis which had broken out in Australia, beginning in Sydney in the summer of 1903-04 and spreading widely over four States.

When MacKenzie returned to Melbourne many people in need of orthopaedic skills became his patients, and the number was increased by a further extensive epidemic in 1908. He developed a systematic method of treatment which as a whole was his own, although its major elements were due, as he acknowledged, mainly to H. O. Thomas, Jones, Bennie and Vulpius. The treatment was published, as he developed it, in his journal articles, and in the pamphlet, circulated within the profession at home and abroad, The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis: A Study on Muscular Action and Muscle Regeneration (Melbourne, 1910). His methods were simple and today are common practice, but at that time were novel and controversial. By their means he was able to promote optimum use of the remaining muscle power, to prevent much deformity, and even to improve long-standing cases which had not had early treatment by his methods. His concern for his patients and their families is evident in his writings. Eventually, he moved to Collins Street as an orthopaedic consultant.

During World War I MacKenzie spent three years in England (1915-17) at the Royal College of Surgeons, where he assisted (Sir) Arthur Keith to catalogue specimens of war wounds for the army and to bring out a new edition of Treves's Surgical Applied Anatomy. At the same time he continued research begun in Melbourne on the comparative anatomy of Australian fauna, using specimens he had brought with him. In 1917 he had a chance to test his principles of muscle rest and re-education on patients of a different kind, when Robert Jones, now inspector of military orthopaedics, asked him to set up a unit at the Military Orthopaedic Hospital, Shepherd's Bush. As a result, he was commissioned by the War Office to write a paper on 'Military orthopaedic hospitals' (British Medical Journal, May 1917). During these years, too, he was writing his best-known book, The Action of Muscles: Including Muscle Rest and Muscle Re-Education (London, 1918), and became a council-member of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

MacKenzie returned to Melbourne early in 1918, took a house at 612 St Kilda Road, converted part of it into a laboratory and museum, which from 1919 he called the Australian Institute of Anatomical Research, and thereafter devoted much time to research on Australian animals. His first results appeared in four volumes published in 1918 and 1919, which were sometimes collectively known as The Comparative Anatomy of Australian Fauna, and were illustrated in part by Victor Cobb. In 1920 MacKenzie was granted permissive occupancy of almost 80 acres (32 ha) of bushland at Badger Creek, Healesville, by the State authorities, as a field station for his research. At his own expense he fenced the land, built a six-roomed house for a curator, a cottage for visiting scientists, a workshop and animal pens; and employed technical assistants. When he vacated this land towards the end of 1927 he suggested that the reserve be enlarged to 500 acres (202 ha) and become a national park. The Sir Colin MacKenzie Sanctuary was eventually officially opened in May 1934, along the lines he had suggested.

The extensive collection of specimens that he and his staff and co-workers had built up as the result of work at St Kilda Road and Healesville became well known, and large sums were offered for it from the United States of America. However, in 1923 he offered it as a gift to the Australian government and, in October 1924, an Act was passed setting up the National Museum of Australian Zoology, to consist of MacKenzie's gift and future additions to it, with MacKenzie as its first director and professor of comparative anatomy. It was to be housed in Canberra but, in the meantime, was to remain at St Kilda Road, and the work was to continue there and at Healesville. MacKenzie now retired from surgical practice.

The museum naturally had low priority in the building programme attendant on the removal of the seat of government to Canberra, but in 1928 responsibility for it was transferred to the Department of Health and preliminary steps were taken which led to its completion in 1930, together with an auxiliary research station and reserve for native animals. It was renamed the Australian Institute of Anatomy. Sadly, no sooner had the institute moved to Canberra than drastic cuts in its funding were made, because of the Depression. In 1928 MacKenzie outlined the ideas which lay behind his work at the institute in his presidential address to section D of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 'The importance of zoology to medical science', and, later, in the Bancroft lecture in Brisbane, 'Functional anatomy and medical practice'. That year the Commonwealth accepted his offer of £1000 for an annual oration on preventive medicine in memory of his mother.

On 22 December 1928 MacKenzie married in Melbourne his assistant, Winifred Iris Evelyn (M.B., B.S.), daughter of Arthur N. Smith, a journalist. MacKenzie was knighted in 1929. In his Canberra years he served as a member of the Medical Board, and in 1933 became second president of the Canberra-based Royal Society of Australia. He had been a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh since 1905. Ill health forced him to retire in November 1937 and he and his wife returned to Melbourne. MacKenzie died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 29 June 1938 at his home in Studley Park Road, Kew, and was cremated. His wife survived him; there were no children.

MacKenzie had red hair which earned him the sobriquet 'Bricky'. He had a great affection for children, which seems to have been reciprocated; his friends spoke of his modest, retiring nature and essential kindness, but he clearly also had great energy and determination. He disliked controversy but was often involved in it. He was inclined to jump to theoretical conclusions with great conviction on little evidence. This can be instanced by his ideas on the importance of Australian fauna for the understanding of human health and disease, on which the institute was founded, and by his controversy, with Wood Jones, Elliot Smith and others, on the antiquity of the Jervois skull, which he considered to pre-date Peking Man. On the other hand, he was a pioneer in orthopaedics in Australia and a dedicated practitioner. He energetically espoused the conservation of Australian fauna and was very generous with his time and money, both in his efforts to advance Australian science and in the care of his poorer patients. Former students have spoken with warmth and gratitude of the personal help and inspiration he gave them. He had a love of things Australian including Australian Rules football, which he considered the best form of human exercise. His wife borrowed Wren's epitaph for the commemorative plaque in the institute: 'Si monumentum requiris, circumspice'. A portrait by William McInnes is held by the Museum of Australia; a pencil portrait by Victor Cobb is in the Anatomy Department, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Pratt, The Call of the Koala (Melb, 1937)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1 Oct 1938, p 576, 27 Jan 1973, p 194
  • Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, 32B, no 4 (Nov 1950), p 601
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 July 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28-31 July 1931, 6, 7, 10, 14, 17, 19, 20, 22, 28 Aug, 10 Dec 1931, 30 June 1938
  • Institute of Anatomy, Canberra, records, 1925-79 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dept of Conservation, Victoria, correspondence with W. C. MacKenzie
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Monica MacCallum, 'MacKenzie, Sir William Colin (1877–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 March, 1877
Kilmore, Victoria, Australia


29 June, 1938 (aged 61)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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