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Henry Wilfred Palmer (1877–1956)

by F. B. Smith

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Charles Reginald Palmer

Henry Wilfred Palmer (1877-1956), tuberculosis sanatorium superintendent, and Charles Reginald Palmer (1882-1955), medical practitioner, were born on 26 May 1877 and 17 April 1882 at Burwood, Sydney, second and fourth sons of Edward Gillett Worcester Palmer, flour broker and later librarian, and his wife Emily Jane, née Smith, both born in Sydney. They attended Sydney Boys' High School; Henry left at 15, possibly because he experienced premonitory symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis. He went to Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains and worked for seven years on road contracting and the family orchard. When Charles enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney, Henry joined him. They graduated M.B., Ch.M. together in 1906. After a stint at the Queen Victoria Homes for Consumptives at Wentworth Falls and Thirlmere, Henry joined the Public Service in June 1907 and was resident medical officer at the Coast (Prince Henry) Hospital until August 1908. In April 1909 he was appointed first medical superintendent of the Home for Consumptives, Waterfall, where he remained until 1939.

He was a thoughtful, reserved practitioner. He endlessly importuned government for money to improve the sanatorium, for mains electricity, finally supplied in 1925, for safer milk, for an efficient laundry. His ideal of a complete system of tuberculosis eradication and management, controlled by a divisional head within the Department of Public Health, was achieved only after his retirement. He wanted early, intermediate and advanced cases placed in distinct institutions with appropriate régimes, allowances linked to the basic wage for hospitalized patients, and after-care for sufferers and their families when the patient was discharged and needing help in finding suitable employment. Palmer also called unavailingly for legally controlled milk sterilization to eliminate non-pulmonary forms of tuberculosis.

His dispirited annual reports on his sanatorium, and his survey of sanatoria in South Australia, Victoria and New Zealand, published in 1924, reveal an unflinching appreciation of the shortcomings in tuberculosis therapies and public interest. Palmer's bleak, courteous honesty upset colleagues concerned with the prestige of the profession. He wanted Waterfall to fulfil its declared purpose by admitting only 'early' cases with favourable prognoses who might, with rest, good nutrition, and training in managing their diet, coughing and spitting, be restored to their families and a job: but Waterfall, like other sanatoria, did not cure and was full of advanced chronic cases drifting towards death. 'Early' cases did not do much better: throughout Palmer's superintendency 90 per cent of patients discharged from New South Wales sanatoria lived less than five years. Palmer tried new therapies as they became fashionable, Dreyer's Antigen, muttonbird oil, saccharin, artificial pneumothorax among them, and duly reported the failure of each.

In 1939 he became secretary and chief executive officer of the Carrington Centennial Hospital for Convalescents, Camden, remaining there until 1955. Palmer's hobby was gardening and, like many sanatorium doctors, he was also interested in breeding pigs.

On 12 August 1908 Palmer had married Ethel May Wheeler, and, as a widower, on 3 February 1923 Magdalene Russell, a nurse. He died at Strathfield on 22 May 1956. His wife, and one son and two daughters of his first marriage survived him.

Charles Palmer was resident at Sydney Hospital in 1906, then went to Coolgardie, Western Australia, and in Perth married Edith Drake Clarke on 10 February 1908. In 1910 he set up as general practitioner at Woonona, New South Wales, and in 1915 enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served as a captain in France in 1916 but was invalided home in May 1917 and discharged from the Australian Imperial Force. Army medical officer at Bulli in 1917-18, he resumed general practice and became honorary repatriation medical officer, government medical officer and Commonwealth medical referee for the Bulli district, posts he held until retiring in 1955. For much of his career Palmer ran contract practices and until 1929 dispensed his own medicines.

Charles Palmer was an admirable family doctor. He was compassionate and assiduous in attending patients and he was a good all-rounder (he was said to have administered over 20,000 general anaesthetics during fifty years without a fatality). During the Depression Palmer treated many families without charge and later welcomed the national health schemes. He founded branches of the Ladies' Home Nursing Service and women's first aid classes, and was active in many other local organizations including the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children and the Wollongong High School, Police Boys' Club and Presbyterian Church. A surgeon within the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1928-55, he was appointed officer brother in the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1939. A wing of Bulli District Hospital was named Palmer House.

Charles Palmer died at Bulli on 5 October 1955 and was cremated. He was survived by his second wife Jane Ethel, née Siddins, a nurse whom he had married as a widower on 21 September 1931, and their son and by two sons and two daughters from his first marriage. His estate was sworn at £49,715.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1924, 11, p 1075
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 3 June 1922, 3 Dec 1955, 25 Aug 1956.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. B. Smith, 'Palmer, Henry Wilfred (1877–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 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

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