Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Arthur John Metcalfe (1895–1971)

by W. D. Refshauge

This article was published:

Arthur John Metcalfe (1895-1971), medical practitioner and public servant, was born on 26 June 1895 at Hamilton, New South Wales, son of English-born parents Rev. John Ewan Metcalfe, Methodist clergyman, and his wife Annie, née Kessell. Educated at Fort Street Model (Boys' High) School and the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1918; D.P.H., 1926), Arthur worked as a resident medical officer at Sydney Hospital and the Renwick Hospital for Infants. He joined the Commonwealth Quarantine Service in September 1919 and was posted to Newcastle soon afterwards. At the Methodist Church, Mosman, Sydney, on 2 October 1920 he married Kathleen Mary McCauley.

Based at Townsville, Queensland, in 1920-22, Metcalfe served as acting-director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and helped to contain an outbreak of bubonic plague. While posted to Thursday Island (1922-23) he was involved in combating beriberi and hookworm. He was sent to Brisbane in 1924 and to Sydney in the following year. In October 1926 he was transferred to the administrative staff of the Department of Health, Melbourne, where he was employed under J. H. L. Cumpston. Metcalfe surveyed Federal and State methods of recording medical statistics and the treatment of infectious diseases. His report eventually led the States to adopt uniform recording practices. Appointed chief quarantine officer, Sydney, in 1927, he was made senior medical officer, New South Wales, in 1932. He moved to Canberra in 1944.

After Frank McCallum died in September 1946, Metcalfe acted as director-general of health until he was confirmed in the post in October 1947. That year he studied government health policies in the United States of America, Canada, Britain and Europe. Under the ministerial direction of N. E. McKenna and Sir Earle Page, Metcalfe's department implemented the hospital, pharmaceutical and medical benefit schemes consolidated by the National Health Act (1953).

During Metcalfe's term as director-general the Department of Health expanded significantly. The Australian Institute of Child Health and the National Biological Standards Laboratory were established and added to the scientific organizations—including the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, the Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratory, the Commonwealth Acoustics Laboratory, and the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine—for which Metcalfe was responsible. He chaired the National Health and Medical Research Council (1948-59) and the National Tuberculosis Council. To check the health of potential immigrants, he kept medical officers in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Denmark, Italy and Austria. As chief Australian delegate, he attended World Health Organization assemblies in 1951, 1953 and 1954. He was appointed to the assembly's executive-board in 1957, chaired technical discussion meetings in 1958 and headed the executive-board's standing committee on administration and finance in 1960.

In 1954 Metcalfe had been appointed C.B.E. A quiet and unassuming man who did not seek the limelight, he retired in 1960, moved to Sydney and helped with community work. He died on 24 March 1971 at Harbord and was cremated with Anglican rites; his daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Health, vol 10, no 3, Sept 1960, p 67
  • A1928/1 item 1020/90 section 1 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

W. D. Refshauge, 'Metcalfe, Arthur John (1895–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 July 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]


26 June, 1895
Hamilton, New South Wales, Australia


24 March, 1971 (aged 75)
Harbord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.