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Sydney Hamilton Rowan Montgomery (1869–1916)

by A. S. Ellis

This article was published:

Sydney Hamilton Rowan Montgomery (1869-1916), psychiatrist, was born on 25 October 1869 in Belfast, Ireland, second son of Rev. Robert Montgomery and his wife Margaret, née Wylie. He attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in 1879-88 and graduated M.B., Ch.B. from the Royal University of Ireland in 1894. After two years as ship's surgeon in the City of Agra, sailing to Indian and South American ports, he entered general practice at Liscard, Cheshire, England.

Montgomery was interested in mental disorders and in 1897 became an assistant at the Nottingham City Asylum for the Insane; there he met a Mr Hine, who had designed several asylums and from whom he learned the principles of asylum construction. On 18 July 1900 Montgomery married Mabel Callaghan at New Brighton, Cheshire; they had six children. Next year he went as superintending medical officer of asylums to Western Australia, arriving at Fremantle on 20 June. He was responsible for the care and treatment of 231 patients in the Fremantle Hospital for the Insane and 45 at Whitby Falls (Mundijong); the latter was a farm used as overflow accommodation for the crowded Fremantle asylum.

Shortly after Montgomery's arrival he visited the eastern States with the principal architect of the Public Works Department J. H. Grainger (father of Percy) to inspect New South Wales and Victorian asylums before designing a new institution to replace the outdated Fremantle asylum. He also reviewed the lunacy Acts in the other States and in New Zealand. In 1901 he chaired a committee formed to select a site for the new asylum, and in early 1903 chose 394 acres (159 ha) at Claremont, near Perth. Temporary buildings were set up and on 18 August twenty 'quiet and chronic' patients were moved there from Whitby Falls. Transfer of patients from Fremantle soon began, but it was 1909 before all patients had been moved and the old asylum closed. At this time Montgomery was drafting a new Lunacy Act, which became law on 1 January 1904 and regulated the treatment of the insane in Western Australia for the next sixty years. He also drafted the Inebriates Act of 1912, which enabled alcoholics to be treated as patients in mental hospitals and which operated until 1963. In 1914 Whitby Falls was converted into a home for inebriates where farm work and other forms of rehabilitation were carried out.

In 1905, with Dr W. P. Birmingham, Montgomery had established a three-year training course for mental nurses, with the award of a certificate of competency. A 'mental ward', the first of its kind in Australia, was set up at the Perth Public Hospital in 1908 so that the 'suspected insane' could enter the general hospital and be treated without the stigma of being incarcerated in an asylum. Montgomery presented a paper on the functioning of this ward to the local branch of the British Medical Association in 1909. That year he became president of the branch, and later read a paper on 'The evolution of the treatment and care of the insane'; he also published an article, 'Syphilis as a cause of insanity', in the Australasian Medical Gazette.

In 1915 Montgomery influenced amendments to the Lunacy Act that increased the number of the statutory board of visitors to the mental institutions from two to three, and provided for the appointment of a woman to the board. In addition to his work as inspector general and medical officer for the insane (his title since 1903) and his participation in the British Medical Association, Montgomery played golf, tennis, Rugby, lacrosse and billiards; he was also a Freemason and a member of the Weld Club. He helped to organize and control the State's pure milk supply, and was part-owner of a wheat-farm in the south-west.

Montgomery died from heart disease on 1 March 1916, and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. His wife and five young children survived him. A tenacious, driving, far-sighted man, he was possibly one of the State's greatest public servants. He fought apathy and prejudice to help those who had no voice of their own; many of his ideas are as relevant now as they were eighty years ago.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • A. S. Ellis, Eloquent Testimony (Nedlands, 1984)
  • Daily News (Perth), 25 Aug 1916
  • West Australian, 2 Mar 1916
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, 28 (1909), p 422
  • Early Days, 7 (1975), pt 7, p 39.

Citation details

A. S. Ellis, 'Montgomery, Sydney Hamilton Rowan (1869–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 July 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]


25 October, 1869
Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


1 March, 1916 (aged 46)
Western Australia, Australia

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