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Cedric Howell Swanton (1899–1970)

by Stephen Garton

This article was published:

Cedric Howell Swanton (1899-1970), psychiatrist, was born on 23 March 1899 at Kew, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents William Howell Swanton, shipping manager, and his wife Lucy Freeman, née Kitchen. Cedric attended Scotch College and the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1924). At Scots Church, Melbourne, on 27 March 1926 he married Ethel May Tovell. He then undertook postgraduate work in surgery in Edinburgh and London, and became a fellow (1926) of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

On his return to Australia, Swanton defied expectations that he would embark on a career as a surgeon, and established a general practice at Merrylands, Sydney, in 1929. Four years later he again abruptly changed course, returning to London to train in psychiatry at the Tavistock Clinic. He gained a diploma of psychiatric medicine (University of London, 1935). In 1937 he set up as a consultant psychiatrist in Macquarie Street, Sydney, and was appointed to the honorary staff at the new psychiatric clinic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he remained until he retired in 1959. He also held appointments at the Women's Hospital, Crown Street, the Eastern Suburbs Hospital and the Northcott Neurological Centre. His reputation grew: he was president (1958) of the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists, a fellow (1962) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and a foundation member (1963) and fellow (1965) of the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. In addition, he acted as an adviser to a number of journals, including Modern Medicine.

Despite his training in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, Swanton became an enthusiastic advocate of physical treatment. One of the first Australian psychiatrists to use electroconvulsive therapy, he continually modified his own apparatus to improve its efficiency. He remained a proponent of this method throughout his career and instructed some younger psychiatrists in its intricacies, including Harry Bailey, later notorious for his mistreatment of patients at the Chelmsford Private Hospital. Psychosurgery (leucotomy) was also one of Swanton's favourite therapies, but he remained sceptical about the effectiveness of the new psychotropic drugs that revolutionized psychiatric practice in the late 1950s—perhaps reflecting the influence of his earliest medical interests.

Swanton was a highly regarded teacher, factual rather than fanciful in diagnosis, though prone to aphorism and didacticism. He took a great interest in university matters, generally preferring local to overseas candidates for academic positions. In 1962 he helped to secure the appointment of David Maddison to the chair of psychiatry at the University of Sydney.

A dour, laconic, thin-lipped, bespectacled man, of rather severe but distinguished appearance, Swanton belonged to the University and Royal Sydney Golf clubs. He was noted for his integrity, sense of justice and generosity. Deeply sentimental, he endeared himself to many of his colleagues. Following one of his regular fishing expeditions, he died suddenly on 11 September 1970 at his Elizabeth Bay home and was cremated without a religious service. His wife, and their two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1 (Syd, 1988)
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 4 Dec 1970
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 14 Aug 1971.

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Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'Swanton, Cedric Howell (1899–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 May 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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