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Christian James McCaffrey (1901–1980)

by John M. Duggan

This article was published:

Christian James McCaffrey (1901-1980), medical superintendent and radiologist, was born on 27 August 1901 at Albury, New South Wales, eldest of five children of James McCaffrey, a Melbourne-born customs officer, and his New Zealand-born wife Dorothy, née Tobin. He was named after the Boer leader Christian de Witt. When the family moved to Sydney he was sent to Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, where he became school captain and shone in studies and in sport. Awarded an exhibition and bursary in 1918, he entered St John's College, University of Sydney (M.B., 1925); his boxing prowess ended the 'hazing' of freshmen at college, and he played Rugby League football for the university.

In November 1925 McCaffrey joined the Department of Public Health. On 2 November 1926 he was appointed medical officer at the Mental Hospital, Parramatta; two years later he gained a university diploma in psychiatry. In 1932 he moved to (Royal) Newcastle Hospital. An able, largely self-taught radiologist, he was appointed medical superintendent in October 1939. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 22 November 1933 he had married Pearl Marie Smith (d.1960), a 32-year-old chemist; they were to have a son and daughter. From 1945 he began recruiting bright young men with war service. By 1950 the hospital was mostly run by salaried specialists, leaving the honorary medical staff largely devoid of power, despite implacable and lasting opposition from the State branch of the British Medical Association. McCaffrey also forged strong links with the Australian Labor Party, at all levels.

Due to McCaffrey's innovations, by the mid-1950s the hospital had a strong commitment to patient welfare, medical audit and efficiency. Some of his staff were to achieve distinction: Peter Hendry became president of the World Association of Societies of Pathology and deputy-chancellor of the University of Newcastle, R. M. Gibson pioneered geriatric care in Australia, and Ivan Schalit, director of anaesthesia, developed one of the first intensive-care units in Australia. McCaffrey was a brilliant teacher of staff at all levels, highly literate, provocative in the Socratic tradition, and far-sighted in his views of health care. For all that, he did promote and protect his favourites.

Basic to the audits that McCaffrey instituted throughout the hospital was an emphasis on good medical records. He was much criticized for his opposition to using incubators for premature babies (the accepted view is that he was wrong) and for his promotion of 'rooming in' for full-term babies (now standard practice). His opposition to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics with the danger of patients acquiring resistance—although rejected by organized medicine at the time—has been justified. In the 1950s McCaffrey wrote a formal proposal for a medical school at Newcastle.

Tensions and antagonisms surfaced in the early 1960s: a number of the specialist staff disagreed with McCaffrey, and the board of directors was embroiled in the controversy. In 1964 an investigation by the Hospitals Commission of New South Wales into serious differences of opinion and unrest among the staff led to the dismissal of the board by the minister for health. At St Luke's Catholic Church, Cooks Hill, on 15 April 1963 McCaffrey had married Doreen Ashmel Birch (d.1975); she was aged 36, and an ear, nose and throat specialist who had been recruited from England. She later returned to Britain, followed by McCaffrey who retired in a storm of criticism in July 1965. They subsequently practised at Lincoln, England, in New Zealand, and eventually at Mount Gambier, South Australia. Survived by the daughter of his first marriage and the son of his second, McCaffrey died on 20 March 1980 at Naracoorte and was buried in Carinya Gardens cemetery, Mount Gambier.

Many found Christian McCaffrey a charismatic teacher and leader; to others he was dominating and devious; few doubted his brilliant grasp of administration. He and the team he gathered around him at the R.N.H. in the 1950s anticipated most of the modern concepts of hospital administration and health care.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Butler (ed), Chris McCaffrey (Newcastle, NSW, 1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Oct 1939, 27 June, 18 July 1964
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 Oct 1960, 18, 21, 23 July 1964, 19 May, 3 Apr, 30 June 1965
  • Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, Sydney, Archives
  • University of Sydney Archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John M. Duggan, 'McCaffrey, Christian James (1901–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 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

Life Summary [details]


27 August, 1901
Albury, New South Wales, Australia


20 March, 1980 (aged 78)
Naracoorte, South Australia, Australia

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