Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Robertson (1870–1969)

by E. M. Robertson

This article was published:

Edward Robertson (1870-1969), medical practitioner and civil servant, was born on 1 June 1870 at Benalla, Victoria, son of Alexander Hay White Robertson, storekeeper from England, and his Scots wife Agnes Maria, née MacTaggart. He was educated at Benalla East State School and, after the family moved to Melbourne in 1886, at Wesley College. After a period in the Lands Department Robertson began to study medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1891 and eventually went to Edinburgh to finish the course. He qualified in 1896 (L.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., Edinburgh; L.F.P.S., Glasgow). At King's College, London, he studied bacteriology, hygiene and public health in 1897, and received the diploma of public health at Cambridge in 1898. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in 1901, and a fellow of the Royal Institute of Public Health in 1902. Between examinations he made several voyages around the world as ship's doctor.

Returning to Australia in 1901 Robertson next year was appointed to the Victorian Department of Public Health as second assistant medical inspector, and in October 1906 was promoted first assistant medical inspector. From 1902 to 1909, when the Commonwealth took over the responsibility, Robertson was frequently engaged in quarantine duties. While he was making a special study of the plague, no insurance company would insure his life. In 1906 he took over the administration of the Meat Supervision Acts, and was a co-author of the Health Inspectors' Manual (1925).

In 1913 Robertson was appointed chief health officer, chairman of the Board of Health (from 1919, Commission of Public Health) and permanent head of the Health Department. He held these positions until 1937. During the pneumonic influenza epidemic of 1919 he drew up an extensive memorandum for the information of the public, organized emergency hospitals, equipment and services with the military authorities, St John Ambulance and the Red Cross, and was responsible for the hospital established by the government in the Exhibition Building.

Visiting the United States of America in 1927 under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, Robertson studied public health at federal, state and county levels. On his return he assisted in framing many amendments to sections of the Health and Pure Foods Acts. He took an active part in many Commonwealth and State conferences, including those relating to quarantine (1913), influenza (1918), plague (1921), venereal disease (1922), sanitary engineering (1923), industrial hygiene (1922 and 1934), and was chairman of the fourth Commonwealth and State conference on uniform standards for food and drugs.

Robertson was a member of the advisory council of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (Townsville, Queensland, and University of Sydney) from 1920, of the Federal Health Council from 1926 and of the new National Health and Medical Research Council in 1937. A member of the medical faculty at the University of Melbourne for twenty-two years, he was also for many years an instructor and examiner for the Victorian board of the Royal Sanitary Institute. In 1936 he was appointed chairman of the steering committee which organized the formation of the Anti-Cancer Council in December 1936. A recognized authority in Australia on preventive medicine, he was awarded the Jubilee and Coronation medals in 1936 and 1937.

Tall and strongly built with unruly hair, Robertson was jovial with a dry sense of humour and an innate dislike of pomposity and smugness. On 29 January 1903 at the Sacred Heart Church, St Kilda, he had married Teresa Mary Deegan; they had two sons and two daughters. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 15 May 1969 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Apr 1937
  • Department of Public Health (Victoria) records
  • Dr E. Robertson papers (State Library of Victoria and Medical Society of Victoria museum, Parkville, Melbourne).

Citation details

E. M. Robertson, 'Robertson, Edward (1870–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 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]


1 June, 1870
Benalla, Victoria, Australia


15 May, 1969 (aged 98)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.