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Edward Sutherland Stokes (1869–1945)

by Peter Sheldon

This article was published:

Edward Sutherland Stokes (1869-1945), public health officer and soldier, was born on 6 March 1869 at Newcastle, New South Wales, second of seven sons of native-born parents Henry Edward Stokes, merchant, and his wife Clara Maude, daughter of J. F. Josephson. A grandson of F. M. Stokes (an original proprietor of the Sydney Morning Herald), Edward was educated at Newcastle Grammar School and lived in St Andrew's College while he studied arts then medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1891). He was resident medical officer in (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital in 1891. While practising at Port Macquarie, he married Irish-born Kathleen Jane Mary Maher (d.1944) on 15 May 1893 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney. They lived at Crookwell from 1896.

Like some of his bright contemporaries, Stokes chose to enter the field of public health where progress in engineering linked to advances in medical theory offered a way of making an immediate contribution to disease prevention. Appointed medical officer at Trial Bay gaol in 1900, he went to Britain and obtained a diploma of public health from the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians in Dublin (1901).

Returning to Sydney, Stokes was assistant medical officer of health for the city's combined sanitary districts and on 30 November 1904 joined the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage as medical officer and bacteriologist. Responsible for testing water quality, sewage wastes and gases from sewer ventshafts, he studied and reported on the incidence of specific diseases arising from poor water or inadequate waste disposal; he made extensive tours of catchment areas to discover sources of contamination; and, as company doctor, he examined sick or injured employees.

While conscientious in regard to public health questions, Stokes was less scrupulous about occupational health. In 1910 sewerage maintenance workers complained that he had neglected their problems and obstructed claims for sick pay; in consequence, they boycotted him in favour of their lodge doctors. Stokes's standpoint combined a lack of sympathy with methodological myopia: as these workers rarely visited him, his records showed that they suffered a lower rate of sickness than any other group which led him to suggest that working in the sewers was healthier than office work or labouring above ground. His attitude did not soften with the years.

Already involved with military sanitation, Stokes enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 August 1914. Posted as major to the 1st Field Ambulance, he sailed in October. He took part in the Gallipoli landing and was responsible for ensuring that the soldiers received pure water. As temporary colonel and deputy assistant director of medical services, he supervised sanitary facilities when a plague of flies in summer threatened to spread endemic diseases. He was evacuated sick in July 1915 and arrived in Sydney to become principal medical officer for the 2nd Military District, New South Wales.

Although Stokes returned to the water board in January 1918, he remained involved with the Australian Military Forces until transferring to the reserve in 1929. With sewerage extension and major dam-building under way, the risks to Sydney's public health receded and his work lost its urgency. After retiring on 12 July 1935, he practised privately as a water technologist and had a well-equipped private laboratory at his Lindfield home. A director of the New Redhead Estate & Coal Co. Ltd, and a founder (1913) and later president of the Sydney Technical College Chemical Society, he was a member of the Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales and read papers at the Australasian Medical congresses in 1905, 1908 and 1911.

During World War II Stokes returned to the water board from January 1942 to April 1943. Both he and his wife were associated with the Edith Cavell Memorial association. Earnest and reserved by nature, he had a brusque manner, but his medical colleagues found his cryptic remarks a joy. Survived by his son and daughter, Stokes died at his home on 12 April 1945 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-18, vol 1 (Melb, 1938), 2, 3 (Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 9 June 1945, p 599
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Apr 1945
  • Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage, Sydney, Personnel report 25094 (Water Board Archives, Sydney)
  • Minutes, Metropolitan Water and Sewerage (General Labourers') Wages Board, Jan 1910 (Water and Sewerage Employees Union Archives, Sydney)
  • Annual roll 1874-1902, St Andrew's College Archives, Sydney.

Citation details

Peter Sheldon, 'Stokes, Edward Sutherland (1869–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 June 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

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