Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William James Penfold (1875–1941)

by A. De Q. Robin

This article was published:

William James Penfold (1875-1941), bacteriologist, was born on 27 September 1875, at Brampton, Cumberland, England, third son of John Blake Penfold, housepainter and decorator, and his wife Marianne, née Cunningham. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh (M.B., C.M., 1896), qualifying with first-class honours. Before graduating he studied pathology in Berlin and bacteriology in Vienna. In 1896-1909 he was in clinical practice at Benwell, Newcastle-on-Tyne, then joined the Lister Institute, London, first as a voluntary research worker, later as British Medical Association research scholar. From 1912 he was a member of the bacteriological staff of the institute, pathologist to the Royal Dental Hospital, and lecturer in bacteriology at its dental school and at the University of London. He was assistant editor of The Tropical Diseases Bulletin.

In 1914 Penfold was seconded to the Royal Army Medical College, Millbank, to produce anti-typhoid vaccine. He successfully investigated and controlled an outbreak of meningitis at Salisbury before returning to practical bacteriology at King George Military Hospital, London, where he treated many Australian troops invalided from Gallipoli and Mesopotamia with dysentery infections. Penfold's world-wide reputation as a bacteriologist and in preventative medicine, sera and anti-toxin, led to his appointment in April 1916 as director of the intended Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne. He displayed his organizing ability in overseeing the building of laboratories, devising equipment and training staff. He developed a complete set of biological products, including vaccine for the 1919 influenza pandemic, and pioneered the practice of returning blood corpuscles to horses after bleeding them for sera. He also produced research-papers on widely varied topics and designed an adjustable microscope tube.

Frustrated by inadequate opportunity for the research which he believed had been promised him, in 1926 he accepted the directorship of the new Baker Research Institute at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, where he recruited promising research workers. Besides lecturing in bacteriology and acting as consultant to the honorary staff at the hospital, Penfold could at last develop his research potential. He devised an exceptionally efficient blood-culture outfit and technique for routine hospital work; pioneered work in immunization against anaerobic bacillary infections; envisaged the possibility of preventing gas gangrene; and initiated a scheme for the reduction of diabetic mortality in Victoria.

In 1935 he delivered the Bancroft memorial lecture and was prominent in establishing the Australian Medical Research Council. Penfold was scrupulous about scientific accuracy and highly critical when he deemed it to be lacking. He hated diplomacy and compromise and was inflexible on certain issues, but never allowed consideration of his own material advantage to stand in the way of his candour. Penfold retired in 1938, two years after an almost fatal attack of hemiplegia but continued research, publishing a paper just before his death on 26 October 1941 at Camberwell. He was cremated. On 1 August 1902 at Sunderland, with Presbyterian forms Penfold had married Annie Bellas Liddell (d.1922) and on 22 January 1923 he married Irene Mary Seedsman, who survived him with a son and a daughter, and two sons and three daughters of his first marriage. Penfold's portrait by A. E. Newbury is at the Alfred Hospital and another by Rollo Thomson is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • The Bancroft Memorial Lecture, 1935 (Syd, 1935)
  • A. de Q. Robin, Three Score Years and Ten (Melb, 1987)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 11, no 23, 1941, and for publications
  • Journal of Pathology and Bacteriology, 54, no 2, Apr 1942
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

A. De Q. Robin, 'Penfold, William James (1875–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 April 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]


27 September, 1875
Brampton, Cumberland, England


26 October, 1941 (aged 66)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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