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Henry Michael O'Hara (1853–1921)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

Henry Michael O'Hara (1853-1921), surgeon, was born on 29 September 1853 at Cork, Ireland, son of Henry O'Hara, merchant, and his wife Anna, née Macoboy. His father retired soon after his birth and the family went to England where Henry was educated at the Jesuits' Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. Orphaned before he was 13, Henry was sent to the care of his aunt, mother of (Sir) John, (Sir) Frank and Walter Madden, in Victoria. He completed his schooling under George Morrison at Geelong College, where he captained the cricket team.

Encouraged by the Maddens, O'Hara started law at the University of Melbourne in 1872. Finding it uncongenial he sailed for Ireland in 1874 and in Dublin was indentured to the surgeon William Wheeler. O'Hara was house surgeon at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital and also attracted the notice of Wheeler's distinguished teacher and friend Richard George Butcher. Meantime, on 20 July 1876, in London, he married Ernestine Klingender, daughter of a Melbourne solicitor. He returned to Melbourne in 1878, a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland.

Immediately on his return O'Hara was appointed honorary out-patient surgeon at the Alfred Hospital. Next year he was honorary physician to in-patients but in 1880 became honorary surgeon to in-patients, a position he held until 1912. In 1902-11 he was chairman of honorary staff. He was an early practitioner of aseptic procedures and renowned as a 'bold and dexterous operator' who could perform a continuous series of delicate operations with speed and skill. At a time when the hospital was struggling to establish its clinical school, his Saturday morning clinics drew consistently large numbers of students.

When the Brighton train was telescoped in the Jolimont railway accident of 1881 he featured in the crop of actions against the Victorian Railways. This began a career as an expert medical witness, during which he won widespread approval in 1894 for knocking into the gutter the abrasive barrister J. L. Purves who had impugned his reputation. O'Hara's wife died in 1883 following a buggy accident and he married Isabella Jane Osborne at Elsternwick on 27 January 1885. She too died in a buggy accident in 1887. Next year O'Hara visited Ireland and qualified as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland. On 11 July 1888 in London he married Nina Osborne, a cousin of his second wife.

After visiting European hospitals, O'Hara returned to Melbourne in 1889 and transferred home and practice from Brighton to Collins Street. In 1892 he purchased Cromwell House which he maintained as a private hospital until about 1911. Love of variety and the needs of a growing family led to frequent changes of residence throughout his life. He was president of the surgical section of the fourth Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia at Dunedin in 1896, and often spoke at meetings of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association. In 1900 he provoked a crisis when most of its council resigned following members' refusal to expel him for an alleged business association with a company selling a contraceptive aid.

He had a most attractive personality and the stories about him were legion. For years his tall straight figure was well known on Melbourne's racecourses. He was a member of a syndicate which leased Ben Bolt and made thousands of pounds from a betting plunge when it won the Caulfield Cup in 1886. O'Hara is said to have lured the owner to the stables on Cup morning and locked him up until after the race for having threatened to withdraw the horse. O'Hara was also a trained baritone with such a fine voice that (Dame) Nellie Melba pressed him to consider a professional singing career. His dinner parties were enriched by his gifts as singer and raconteur. Doctor and friend to Percy Grainger and his mother, who were sometime neighbours, he fostered Percy's career, helping to organize the benefit concert which enabled impecunious mother and son to sail for Europe.

O'Hara made a great deal of money from his practice and knew how to spend it. His generosity and compassion extended far beyond his immediate circle of family and friends. His favourite home at Portsea, where he died of colitis on 7 April 1921, was owned by his wife who survived him, with two sons of his first marriage and three sons and two daughters of his third. He was buried with Catholic rites in Sorrento cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £2961. A son of his second marriage was killed in action in France in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • J. Bird, Percy Grainger (Melb, 1977)
  • A. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 18 June 1921
  • Alfred Hospital Clinical Reports, 3, 1953, 6, 1956, 7, 1957, 11, 1963
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 23 Oct 1886, 13 Oct 1894
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 3 Mar 1893, 25 Aug 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Apr 1921.

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'O'Hara, Henry Michael (1853–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1853
Cork, Ireland


7 April, 1921 (aged 67)
Portsea, Victoria, Australia

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