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Sir Kenneth William Starr (1908–1976)

by Robert A. B. Holland

This article was published:

Sir Kenneth William Starr (1908-1976), surgeon, was born on 9 January 1908 at Wellington, New South Wales, eldest of four children of native-born parents William Stanley Starr, machine agent, and his wife Mildred, née Jennings. His father was an itinerant mechanic who travelled through the western region of the State, repairing heavy agricultural machinery on sheep- and cattle-stations. An unreliable man, he drank too much and went missing, leaving his family without support. Mildred worked as a housekeeper for relations near Cowra. At the age of 9 Ken was allowed to move to a boarding house at Marrickville, Sydney, where he attended the local public school.

In 1920 Mrs Starr bought a house at Stanmore, Sydney, which she ran as a boarding house. Ken excelled at Fort Street Boys' High School; his curriculum included much Latin and Greek, and he retained a love of the classics. At the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1930), he won numerous prizes and graduated with first-class honours and the university medal. When he was at school and university he worked at nights, at weekends, and in holidays to help to support the family.

Starr served as a resident medical officer (from 1930) at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital before becoming surgeon superintendent (1933) at (Royal) Newcastle Hospital. In 1936 he travelled to London and gained a fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, taking the primary and final examinations in successive months and winning the Hallett prize. After further study in Europe and the United States of America, he returned to Newcastle in 1937 as assistant-surgeon.

From 1926 Starr had been active in the Militia. Called up on 23 October 1939 for full-time service as major, Australian Army Medical Corps, he was posted to headquarters, Southern Command, Melbourne. In 1940 he became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and graduated M.S. from the University of Melbourne. On 10 May that year at All Saints Church, St Kilda, he married with Anglican rites Alison, daughter of Sir Neville Howse. That day he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. Sailing for the Middle East in October, he was appointed assistant-director of medical services and promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in January 1941 (substantive August). He served in Eritrea with the 2nd/5th Australian General Hospital, then studied plastic and facio-maxillary surgery in Britain (February-July 1942) and North America. In 1942 he was appointed O.B.E.

In November 1942 Starr was posted as officer commanding, surgery division, 113th A.G.H., Sydney. He set up a facial maxillary and plastic surgery unit at that military hospital. In 1944 he was awarded the Jacksonian prize by the Royal College of Surgeons for his essay, 'Delayed Union of Fractures'. Following a strong disagreement with his superiors about the clinical management of cases, he was sent back to the 2nd/5th A.G.H. in November 1944 and embarked for Morotai in March 1945. During the Borneo campaign he treated many wounds with the newly available drug penicillin. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 20 February 1946.

Starr leap-frogged over other staff members to become a senior honorary surgeon at Sydney Hospital in 1946. While none denied his erudition and technical skill, the appointment caused considerable resentment. He was also visiting surgeon at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord. In addition, he ran a successful general surgical practice. He was a quick operator and did not suffer fools gladly, but was very gentle with children. In 1955, at the invitation of the New South Wales government, he created a special unit for cancer research and treatment at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, and became its honorary director. Three years later he was made a consultant at Sydney Hospital.

A member from 1962 and chairman (1967-72) of the New South Wales Medical Board, Starr was president (1964-66) of the R.A.C.S. As chairman of the Medical Advisory Committee, he wrote its majority report (1958) recommending the establishment of a new medical school, to be located at the New South Wales University of Technology (University of New South Wales). Many leading medical practitioners regarded the report as an affront to the University of Sydney. In the 1960s Starr chaired other government committees.

The Starrs lived at Turramurra on a large block of land (with horses) until moving to Coogee in 1958 to be near the special unit. Ken belonged to the Australian Club and the Elanora Country Club, and was a fine golfer. He published several books and a number of articles in medical journals, and was a consulting editor to two overseas surgical journals. In 1956 he was appointed C.M.G. He was knighted in 1971.

Suffering from cerebral thrombosis and hypertensive vascular disease, Starr gave up surgery in 1966 and restricted himself to administration and research in the special unit. Over the next few years his health deteriorated, despite the devoted care of his wife. Sir Kenneth died of bronchopneumonia on 16 June 1976 at the Lochinvar Nursing Home, Coogee. His wife, and their three daughters and two sons—one of whom followed him into medicine—survived him. A posthumous portrait of Starr by Robert Hannaford is held by the R.A.C.S., Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of War (Canb, 1952)
  • Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 1974-1982 (Lond, 1988)
  • D. Starr, Kenneth W. Starr (Georgetown, Texas, US, 1998)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1, 1977, p 560
  • Starr papers (National Library of Australia)
  • University of New South Wales Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert A. B. Holland, 'Starr, Sir Kenneth William (1908–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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