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Sir Sidney Valentine Sewell (1880–1949)

by John V. Hurley

This article was published:

Sir Sidney Valentine Sewell (1880-1949), physician, was born on 14 February 1880 at Ballarat, Victoria, youngest of ten children of Richard Blamire Sewell, engineer, and his wife Emma, née Cottrill, both English born. Educated at Caulfield Grammar School, he always hoped to study medicine, but because of family financial problems caused by the bank crash of 1893 he taught for two years at Hamilton College before entering Queen's College, University of Melbourne, in 1901. After a brilliant academic career, largely supported by scholarships, he graduated (M.B., B.S., 1905) with first-class honours in all final-year subjects. A year as senior resident medical officer at Melbourne Hospital was followed by an acting lectureship in pathology at the university.

On 18 March 1908 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Elsternwick, Sewell had married Alice Maud Cunning (1881-1971). In 1908-10 Sewell spent a year with Sir Victor Horsley at University College, London, attended clinics at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, worked with (Sir) Frederick Mott and observed the researches of (Sir) James Mackenzie. In Germany he worked in A. von Wasserman's laboratory when the anti-syphilitic arsenical 606 was first introduced.

Returning to Melbourne in 1910 Sewell was awarded his M.D. and began private practice in Collins Street, initially as assistant to (Sir) Richard Stawell. He rapidly developed a very large consulting practice. A brief period as neurologist and assistant pathologist at St Vincent's Hospital preceded his appointment as physician to out-patients at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital. He delivered at the medical school of the university a very successful course of lectures on neurology, based on his overseas experience, and in 1911, during the absence of Professor W. A. Osborne, he lectured on the central nervous system. These courses were early indications of his great skill as a teacher. Sewell was disappointed at being rejected for service in World War I because of persistent infection after appendicitis, but with characteristic energy undertook the care of repatriated soldiers with 'shell shock'.

In the early 1920s Sewell became interested in the early diagnosis and management of pulmonary tuberculosis. He went to the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Brompton, London, to learn the technique of artificial pneumothorax, and to clinics in the United States of America to study the management of tuberculosis. His aim was to establish a State tuberculosis service in Victoria and to arrange proper financial support for sanatorium patients. This he did despite considerable criticism and unpopularity.

With Stawell he founded the Association of Physicians of Australasia in 1930. In 1938 this became the basis of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians of which he was vice-president in 1938-40 and president in 1940-42. In 1939 he was elected honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London. That year he retired from Royal Melbourne Hospital and was appointed consulting physician. In World War II he returned to full duty and was knighted in 1945.

Neither specific chemotherapy for bacterial infections nor the powerful drugs now used for non-infective diseases were available when Sewell was in practice. However he was far from a therapeutic nihilist. He often employed cupping, the application of leeches and even intrarectal oxygen in extreme cases. If some of his treatment was not well founded, much can be said for his attitude in refusing to admit defeat.

Sewell had no bent for research, but as a Stewart lecturer in medicine he had a great influence on students. He was authoritative and dogmatic, and in later years invariably Socratic. In his meticulous clinical examination Sewell showed both skill and showmanship. Few reach a position of eminence uncriticized by their fellows, and Sewell was no exception, but his achievements suggest that much of the criticism was inspired by envy.

His hobbies and relaxation were his family and his home at Berwick, which had a garden filled with rare trees and shrubs. He was expert in tree-grafting and cattle-breeding. Sewell died at home on 13 March 1949 of coronary vascular disease, and was cremated. His wife, two sons (both medical graduates) and four daughters survived him. Characteristically he continued to advise the Victorian government on tuberculosis until a few weeks before he died. His portrait by Charles Wheeler is held by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Sydney.

Lady Sewell was born on 16 February 1881. She was educated at Presbyterian Ladies' College and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1902; M.A., 1906), where she was the first woman to win the Wyselaskie scholarship in classical and comparative philology and logic. With Ethel Osborne, she was a founder of the Lyceum Club, Melbourne. Active in the Country Women's Association, she chaired the handicrafts and home industries committee in 1937-40, and was appointed a member of honour. She was also a member of the Victoria League and the Ormond Women's Association. In 1937 she was awarded the Coronation medal. She died at Berwick on 16 February 1971.

Select Bibliography

  • Principal Women of the Empire, vol 1 (Lond, 1940)
  • Royal Melbourne Hospital, Clinical Reports, 20 (1949), p 8
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 14 May 1949, p i, 666
  • British Medical Journal, 7 May 1949, p 1, 824
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1949
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John V. Hurley, 'Sewell, Sir Sidney Valentine (1880–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 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]


14 February, 1880
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


13 March, 1949 (aged 69)
Berwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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