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James Edward Neild (1824–1906)

by Bryan Gandevia

This article was published:

James Edward Neild (1824-1906), forensic pathologist, drama critic, medical editor and journalist, was born on 6 July 1824 at Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, son of James Neild and his wife Sarah, née Bilton. His father was educated for the English Church but espoused Wesleyanism; he was successively a schoolmaster, timber merchant (at the time of his son's birth) and brewer. As a child, Neild acquired an early knowledge of music, literature and art, showing such aptitude and enthusiasm for the latter that he wished to make it his career. However, at the behest of his mother he was apprenticed to his uncle, a prominent medical practitioner in Sheffield in 1842, spending five years in this work and in attending lectures and clinical practice at the infirmary. In 1847 he enrolled for the course in surgery at University College, London (L.S.A., 1848). After two years in general practice in Oulton, Yorkshire, he became house surgeon to the dispensary at Rochdale, near Manchester, where his insistence on using anaesthetics led to conflict with authority. However, on his resignation in 1853 he was presented with a suitably inscribed case of instruments by the board of governors and a certificate expressing the approval and confidence of the medical staff.

Neild had already shown evidence of the wide range of interests and delight in controversy which later characterized his life in Melbourne. He had been an occasional contributor, chiefly of verse, to various journals since he was 13. In Sheffield and London he haunted the art galleries and theatres, becoming a drama critic whilst in Sheffield and at Rochdale near the Manchester theatres. Politically 'very democratic', he refused, alone amongst his fellow students, to be sworn in as a special constable when in April 1848 the Chartists marched in London to present their petition; as a personal acquaintance of John Bright he was active in moves to repeal the Corn Laws.

In 1853 Neild, attracted by colonial gold, went to Australia as surgeon in the Star of the East, disembarking at Sydney. From Melbourne, a few weeks later, he walked to the Castlemaine diggings, where he combined medical practice with mining. He returned to Sydney to investigate a government post as medical officer at Grafton, which he declined because of its remoteness. Back in Melbourne, he entered the business of David Rutter Long, chemist and druggist. Early in 1855 he joined the general reporting staff of the newly-established Age, but in that year he and Long's eldest son took over the pharmaceutical business, trading as Long & Neild for six years. In this period he was theatrical critic to My Note Book, which he edited for a time, the Examiner and the Argus, writing as 'Christopher Sly'. Neild's name first appears on the medical register in 1856, but he did not begin medical practice in Melbourne until 1861. He was soon elected to the Medical Society of Victoria, on which he was to exercise a strong influence as an office-bearer over nearly twenty years; he was president in 1868. He proved a most competent librarian in 1863-66 and 1870-74 (an appointment he also held in the Royal Society of Victoria) and secretary in 1875-79, and diligently fulfilled the difficult task of editing the society's Australian Medical Journal in 1862-79 where his pen found adequate scope for controversy, either as editor or as 'Sinapis'. Indeed, it was an argument over the minutes and journal report of a meeting which precipitated his dramatic resignation of both positions.

Granted a degree by the University of Melbourne (M.D., 1864), Neild was appointed lecturer in forensic medicine against much opposition in the recently established medical school in 1865. He held this position until 1904, when his signal service was recognized by a special testimonial from the council. His increased medical activity in this period is reflected in some association with Professor G. B. Halford's researches, notably on snakebite, but more particularly in an increasing volume of medico-legal work. Encouraged by the coroner, Dr Youl, he acquired considerable experience and repute in forensic pathology, but a proposal to create the post of government pathologist, with Neild as its first occupant, met with a mixed reception from the medical profession and was dropped. He was for a time acting coroner and city medical officer of health, an honorary physician to the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum and an assistant honorary medical officer at the Melbourne and Alfred Hospitals. In 1865, continuing his tireless work for his professional brethren, he helped to found the Medical Benevolent Association, of which he was honorary secretary, and in 1868 a short-lived Medico-Ethical Society. In 1879 with Dr Louis Henry and eight other doctors he established the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association, holding the first meeting in his home; later he was honorary secretary and in 1882 president, and as Victorian correspondent he helped to establish its journal in New South Wales, the Australasian Medical Gazette. He played a major role in founding a branch of the St John Ambulance Association in Victoria, continuing as an examiner at least until 1897; he was enrolled as an honorary associate of the Grand Priory of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England in 1895. He was the first president of the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, an appointment which he held until 1871.

Between 1865 and 1890 Neild, as 'Jacques' or later 'Tahite', was theatrical critic for the Australasian, in which role he exerted a forthright and profound influence; as an example, he claimed to have been the first to recognize the brilliance of (Dame) Nellie Melba's voice, advising her to forsake her studies of the piano. As 'Cleofas', Neild published On Literature and Fine Arts in Victoria (1889), and a theatrical novel A Bird in a Golden Cage, Christmas, 1867 (1867); two of his comediettas are said to have been successfully produced on the stage. He wrote numerous articles for the Herald and its associated publications, the Melbourne Punch and the Weekly Review, and for the Victorian as 'The Grumbler'. He was a founder of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, of which he was president in 1890, and was partly responsible for developing a literary and art section in the Royal Society. In 1890 he was given a public testimonial at a formal gathering at the Princess Theatre presided over by his friend George Coppin in recognition of his many public services, particularly in relation to the theatre.

Neild's signed medical papers are few, perhaps the most valuable being those containing recollections of the early medical school, published in the Australian Medical Journal (1887) and Speculum (1892 and 1900). His lectures were punctuated by Shakespearian quotations and, of more interest than the formal matter, by illustrations from his extensive and varied personal experience. He contributed a paper on the advantages of burning the dead to the Royal Society of Victoria in 1874.

Keen-eyed and beetle-browed, Neild was 'short, natty' and very alert, 'always suggestive of a terrier saying “who said cats”'. He was described by Dr G. T. Howard as a 'versatile genius', probably the sanest and brainiest of a Bohemian clique including Marcus Clarke, G. G. McCrae, Dr Patrick Moloney, 'Orion' Horne, J. J. Shillinglaw, Henry Kendall and Adam Lindsay Gordon. These and many actors and artists gathered at his home at 21 Spring Street regularly on Sunday afternoons, when the conversation was 'always spirited'. Neild was described as 'personally a delightful man, courteous and obliging … of wide reading and culture, but also a keen fighter for what he thought to be right … beloved by his friends, and most cordially hated by his particular enemies, of whom he has a good many'.

Neild died at his home on 17 August 1906. In 1857 he had married Susannah (1831-1918), daughter of D. R. Long. Nine children survived to adult life. Of three sons, Charles, an architect, was killed in World War I; Edwin died in 1949 leaving two daughters; and Joseph, who shared his father's interests in pathology, journalism, theatre and literature, died unmarried in 1949. Only two of the six daughters married. Most of the family records, collected by Dr Neild and his sons, have been lost.

A portrait is held by the St John Ambulance Association in Victoria, and a plaster likeness by the Medical Society of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Johnston, ‘Dr. James Edward Neild and the early history of the St. John Ambulance Association in Australia’, Medical Journal of Australia, 5 Oct 1963
  • Table Talk, 1 Aug 1890
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Aug 1906
  • F. Taylor, Notes on Dr James Edward Neild and his Descendants, 8105 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Neild papers (Medical Society of Victoria Museum).

Citation details

Bryan Gandevia, 'Neild, James Edward (1824–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sly, Christopher
  • Sinapis
  • Jacques
  • Tahite
  • Cleofas
  • Grumbler, The

6 July, 1824
Doncaster, Yorkshire, England


17 August, 1906 (aged 82)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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