Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Snowball (1854–1902)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published:

William Snowball (1854?-1902), medical practitioner, was born probably on 7 November 1854 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of John Snowball, builder, and his wife Catharine, née Iley, both from Durham, England. He was educated at Wesley College and Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. Graduating (M.B., 1875; B.S., 1880) from the University of Melbourne, he studied at University College, London (L.S.A., 1876), gained experience at the Great Ormond Street Hospital and in Edinburgh (L.M. et L.R.C.S., 1877), and visited several continental hospitals. Returning to Melbourne, he was appointed resident doctor at the Children's Hospital (1878), becoming an honorary there in 1882 after having commenced his own practice in paediatric medicine at Carlton.

As chairman of the honorary medical staff at the Children's Hospital, Snowball co-operated closely with management to enlarge and improve accommodation. Infection was a constant threat, often introduced by out-patients or their parents and breeding freely among the sick, especially in overcrowded, sunless wards. At his insistence, a new and separate out-patient block was built in 1897 and he helped to plan a new in-patient block. With wide windows, sunny verandahs and facing north, it was to open in 1903. Concern for the welfare of nurses showed in Snowball's constant efforts to have their accommodation improved and in his insistence on prophylactic injections of diphtheria antitoxin to protect them from infection. In the 1890s he introduced hospital lectures by the honorary staff to nurses and medical students.

In 1895 he was president of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association. Although not noted as a surgeon, as a paediatric physician and clinical teacher he was outstanding. Snowball has been called 'the father of paediatrics in Melbourne': his professional skill, the warmth of his personality and his instant rapport with the young quickly made his a household name. He appreciated that the child, physically, is not a small adult, but a different person with different needs and problems. He devoted his life to children, to their hospital and to those who cared for them. It was said that most doctors could correctly determine nine out of ten children's ailments, but that only Snowball could diagnose and prescribe for the tenth.

Genial, with a kindly, heavily-bearded face and a fine sense of humour, Snowball was a voracious reader and a keen ornithologist. Always a big man who regretted that he had to stoop to reach a flower, he increasingly carried too much weight and his health suffered. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 29 November 1881 he had married Mary Sophia Burton; they lived quietly with their five children on his Narracan property in the last months before he died of Bright's disease on 22 April 1902. His funeral, at the Melbourne general cemetery, was attended by many professional colleagues and fellow members of the Yorick Club. His contribution as a pioneer paediatrician, would have been greater had he lived more than forty-seven years. His death was fairly recorded as 'a national loss'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • H. B. Graham, Beacons on Our Way (Melb, 1953)
  • L. Gardiner, Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne 1870-1970 (Melb, 1970)
  • Intercolonial Medical Journal of Australasia, 20 May 1902
  • Australasian, 6 May 1893, 26 Apr 1902
  • Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Archives, which includes a bibliography of Snowball's professional publications compiled by Dr U. Shergold, 1970.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Snowball, William (1854–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1854
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


22 April, 1902 (aged 47)
Victoria, Australia

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