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Eric Sinclair (1860–1925)

by Stephen Garton

This article was published:

Eric Sinclair (1860-1925), psychiatrist, was born on 14 February 1860 at West Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, son of Rev. Sutherland Sinclair, United Presbyterian minister, and his wife Margaret, née Callander. He was educated at the Renfrewshire provincial school and studied medicine at the University of Glasgow (M.B., Ch.M., 1881; M.D., 1886). Briefly resident medical officer at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow, in 1881 he sailed for Sydney where he obtained an appointment as medical officer at the Quarantine Station, North Head. His interests turned to psychological medicine. On 13 February 1882 he was appointed medical officer at the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, and in October 1883 was promoted medical superintendent. At Gladesville he pioneered new treatments and encouraged the development of training schemes for nurses. Returning to Glasgow he gained his doctorate, and at Falkirk married Eliza Wade on 16 September 1886 before returning with her to Sydney. She died in 1890 after the birth of their second son. He never remarried.

On 22 February 1898 Sinclair succeeded F. N. Manning as inspector-general of the insane. He took office at a time of crisis in the mental hospital system. Increasing rates of admission taxed facilities and exacerbated overcrowding. He became an effective lobbyist for government funding. More wards were built at existing hospitals and new hospitals were established at Peat Island (1909), Stockton and Morisset (1910), Milson Island (1920) and Orange (1925).

Sinclair led a movement to establish the treatment of mental illness on a scientific footing and to have psychiatry recognized as a legitimate medical science. To these ends in 1909 he established the department's pathological laboratory where mental patients were tested for various medical pathologies. Sinclair sought to replace older terms such as psychological medicine with modern terms like psychiatry. He believed in the importance of training specialists and successfully advocated a chair of psychiatry at the University of Sydney, established in 1923.

Two campaigns were central to his reforming ambitions. In his view psychiatrists had to escape their role as asylum custodians and conduct psychiatric clinics where patients could voluntarily seek treatment without fear of certification and compulsory confinement. Only then would they recognize insanity as an illness and admit themselves to care in the early stages of their malady when most curable. He advocated legislation to legalize voluntary treatment. Undaunted by government inertia Sinclair opened the first public psychiatric ward for voluntary patients in 1908. In 1915 he authorized the admission of voluntary patients to State mental hospitals despite the absence of any authorizing legislation. His bluff succeeded: successive governments refrained from stopping this practice.

During World War I it was recognized that many returned soldiers suffering from mental problems needed treatment facilities. On 5 September 1915 Sinclair was commissioned in the Australian Army Medical Corps and charged with supervising psychiatric treatment of returned soldiers at No.13 Australian Military Hospital, a unit opened in the grounds of Callan Park mental hospital. In 1918 he became principal medical officer of the 2nd Military District. In 1922 the Fuller government allowed him to reopen the old military hospital, as Broughton Hall, for voluntary patients.

Sinclair's second campaign was for legislation for the segregation of the mentally defective. In his view the 'unfit' were the majority of incurable patients whose presence in mental hospitals distracted from the task of caring for curable patients. He failed in his efforts to promote a mental defectives bill but reorganized the mental hospital system. Curable patients were increasingly admitted to clinics and better-kept wards, while the incurable were transferred to backward and poorly staffed and maintained hospitals.

A stern-faced, balding man with deep-set, dark eyes and a bushy Edwardian beard, Sinclair was renowned as a brilliant organizer and stern disciplinarian. Junior officers complained of his 'divide-and-rule' tactics but this enabled him to maintain tight control over the department. He guided it through the public outcry occasioned by the incarceration of controversial sex reformer William Chidley in 1912 and 1916. His strength of character was apparent in his ability to turn the 1913 and 1923 royal commissions into lunacy laws and administration into platforms to advance his reforms.

Active in public life, he was a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, a council-member of St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, a committee-member of the Sydney Industrial Blind Institution, Nurses' Club, United Dental Hospital of Sydney and the Microscopical Society of New South Wales, and a member of the local Royal Society.

On 19 May 1925 Sinclair died of heart disease at Mount Victoria, while on his way to inspect the new hospital at Orange, and was buried in Field of Mars cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His sons, both doctors, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. T. Edwards, Patients are People (Syd, 1968)
  • Inspector-General of the Insane, Annual Report, 1898-1925
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 6 June 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Feb 1925.

Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'Sinclair, Eric (1860–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 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]


14 February, 1860
West Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland


19 May, 1925 (aged 65)
Mount Victoria, New South Wales, Australia

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