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Harvey Sutton (1882–1963)

by D. R. Walker

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Harvey Sutton (1882-1963), professor of medicine, was born on 18 February 1882 at Jail Hill, Castlemaine, Victoria, eighth child of William Sutton, head warder, and his wife Hannah, née Howe, each of whom had migrated from Ireland in the 1850s. Harvey attended school at Castlemaine, and St Andrew's College, Bendigo. Resident in Trinity College from 1898, he studied medicine at the University of Melbourne (M.B., 1902; Ch.B., 1903; M.D., 1905), receiving his clinical training at Melbourne Hospital; J. H. L. Cumpston was among his fellow students. Sutton gained a string of honours, including the Beaney scholarship in pathology; he represented the university in lacrosse, athletics and cricket, and his college in rowing and football. At various times he held the Victorian and Australasian half-mile records and the Victorian record for the mile.

While resident and senior resident medical officer at the Children's Hospital, Sutton was awarded the Rhodes scholarship for Victoria. In 1905 he entered New College, Oxford (B.Sc., 1908); working for two years under J. S. Haldane, he completed a research degree on the effects of increasing body temperature on the metabolic rate. He represented Oxford against Cambridge in athletics and lacrosse, and in 1908 competed for Australia in the 800 metres at the Olympic Games in London. Sutton served as resident medical officer at Charing Cross Hospital and the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine before returning to Melbourne where he was medical officer with the Victorian Department of Public Instruction from September 1909 until World War I.

As a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, from March 1916 Sutton served with the Australian Imperial Force in Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and Syria. With Major Eustace Ferguson, he commanded No.7 Sanitary Section, Anzac Mounted Division, and Anzac Field Laboratory: epidemic dysentery and malaria were particular problems. On leave in London, Sutton married Frances Beatrice Davis on 23 October 1917 at St Philip's Church, Kensington. Returning to Egypt in January 1918, he survived the sinking of the hospital ship, Aragon. He worked in several hospitals and, as a temporary major from February 1918, became deputy assistant director of medical services at Headquarters. He was twice mentioned in dispatches (1918 and 1920) and appointed O.B.E. in 1919. Sutton became interested in archaeology and remained fascinated by the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. He brought back to Australia a bottle of water from the River Jordan which was later used to baptize his children.

Returning to Melbourne in 1919, Sutton completed a diploma in public health. Next year he joined the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction as principal medical officer. For much of the 1920s he also lectured part time in public health and preventive medicine at the University of Sydney. When the Commonwealth government and the university established the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in 1929, Sutton was appointed the school's first director, and the next year was appointed to the chair of preventive medicine. During World War II his school was involved in advising and training the armed services on all aspects of tropical health. Sutton also became inspector of army camps in New South Wales with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He retired from the university in 1947.

Sport had remained a passion: Sutton attended the inaugural meeting of the Australian Universities' Sports Association in 1920 and was to be active in its organization throughout his life. He would often appear at the university oval with stethoscope and stopwatch, eager to assess sporting performances. His talent extended to boomerang and spear throwing. A great all-rounder, he was a tall, athletic, family man, embodying many of the contemporary ideals of citizenship and public service. He promoted the public health movement, which he viewed in triumphalist terms, and physical education, particularly of school children. Sutton warned that Fascist states had done more than the democracies to create efficient populations. 'God', he once wrote, 'marches on the side of the fittest battalions'. He attributed nervous breakdowns, delinquency and divorce to unfitness, and argued that 'Vitamins, sunshine, open-air life and exercise remove the cause of mental instability'.

With Dr J. S. Purdy, he inaugurated Health Week in 1921 and was for many years president of the Sydney Health Week Council. Sutton helped to organize the Father and Son Welfare Movement of Australia (established in Sydney in 1926), and regularly spoke in support of family values and sex education; he was also involved in the Recreation and Leadership Movement, the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, the Family Planning Association, the Sydney University Settlement, Legacy, the Royal Society of New South Wales, the Fairbridge Farm Schools of New South Wales and the local branch of the Royal Sanitary Institute. He served, as well, on the National Fitness Council of New South Wales and the Child Welfare Advisory Council.

In sundry papers—many delivered to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and the Australasian Medical Congress—Sutton examined some of his central concerns: the prophylactic and diagnostic aspects of malaria, delinquency, feeble-mindedness, sanitation and the health needs of school children. A regular contributor to the Medical Journal of Australia and the Sydney University Medical Journal, he published his 1941 Livingstone lectures (sponsored by Camden College) as Mental Health in Peace and War (1942) and a textbook, Lectures on Preventive Medicine, in 1944. Given his proclivity for collecting books, Sutton's room at the university grew wonderfully crowded. Yet, he was never a bookworm and practised what he preached when it came to lecturing and research, insisting on rest, good diet and regular exercise. For the tropical medicine school, he designed a sunken garden where he sometimes took classes, or encouraged performances of Greek and Elizabethan drama. He was convinced that the inhabitants of modern, industrial cities needed to rediscover a Greek sense of the unity of mind and body, and was fond of observing that the 'greatest Teacher of all time taught His disciples chiefly in the open air'.

Survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters, Harvey Sutton died at his Rose Bay home on 21 June 1963 and was buried in Waverley cemetery. His portrait by Joshua Smith is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War 1914-18, vol 1 (Melb, 1938)
  • M. Roe, Nine Australian Progressives (Brisb, 1984)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • Sydney University Medical Journal, June 1930, Sept 1931
  • Australian Rhodes Review, 1934, 1939
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 28 Nov 1963
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 28 Mar 1964.

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. R. Walker, 'Sutton, Harvey (1882–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 April 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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