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Sir Brian Herbert Swift (1893–1969)

by Jane Harford and Neville Hicks

This article was published:

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This is a shared entry with Neville Cropley Swift

Sir Brian Herbert Swift (1893-1969), obstetrician and gynaecologist, and Neville Cropley Swift (1895-1918), soldier, were born on 2 February 1893 and 19 September 1895 in Adelaide, second and youngest of three sons of Harry Swift, a medical practitioner from England, and his South Australian-born wife Kate Marion Lilian, née Peacock. Their father became dean of the faculty of medicine, University of Adelaide, in 1924. His sons attended the Collegiate School of St Peter. Brian studied elementary science for a year at the University of Adelaide before proceeding to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (B.A., 1914; M.B., B.Ch., 1916; M.A., M.D., 1936). On 2 August 1916 he was commissioned lieutenant, Royal Army Medical Corps. Twelve months later he was promoted captain. He served briefly in hospitals at Leith, near Edinburgh, and then on the Western Front. In 1918 he won the Military Cross for his 'splendid example of courage and determination' under enemy fire. He transferred to the Royal Air Force in September 1918.

After being demobilized from the air force on 23 October 1919, Swift returned to Adelaide where he entered general practice and set his sights on an appointment to the honorary staff of a public hospital. He worked as anaesthetist (from 1920) at the Adelaide Children's Hospital, as senior obstetrician (from 1922) at the Queen's Home (Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital) and as tutor (from 1924) in obstetrics at the University of Adelaide. In 1925 he travelled to Britain for further obstetric training and obtained a fellowship (1926) of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. He also studied in Vienna, a 'Mecca' for gynaecologists in the 1920s. Back in Adelaide in 1928, he moved into specialist practice in obstetrics and gynaecology. Honorary senior obstetrician at the Queen's Home, he also held the posts of honorary assistant gynaecologist (1929-39) and honorary gynaecologist (1940-53) at (Royal) Adelaide Hospital. He convened the postgraduate medical committee of the South Australian branch of the British Medical Association and was elected (1931) a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

At St Peter's College chapel on 5 April 1934 Swift married with Anglican rites Joan Royal Tennant, the grand-daughter of Andrew Tennant; they were to have a son and daughter. He visited Cambridge in 1936 to present his doctoral thesis: it was based on a series of cases from which he had deduced a connection between vitamin deficiency in the diet and a form of irritation of the vulva. His search for recent advances in his field took him again to Vienna, and to Paris, Stockholm, London and New York. In 1937 he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, London.

On 1 November 1940 Swift was appointed major, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He served (1941-42) in the Middle East, initially with the 2nd/9th Australian General Hospital and later with the 2nd/2nd A.G.H. In March 1942 he came home to Adelaide and was based at the 101st A.G.H. until he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 24 July 1943. He was a consultant gynaecologist to the Royal Australian Air Force in 1943-45.

Highly regarded by his colleagues for his skill, Swift introduced a number of techniques in gynaecological surgery to Australia. In 1945 he set up a sterility clinic at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He pioneered the use of the Papanicolaou smear. In treating cancer of the cervix his surgery made a virtue of 'respect for human tissue' at a time when operations were usually 'more heroic' and some of his peers were dabbling in fierce radiotherapies. He presided (1945-46) over the State branch of the B.M.A., and was a founder (1947) and chairman (1953-56) of the Australian regional council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. From 1948 to 1952 he lectured in gynaecology at the university. He was knighted in 1954.

Sir Brian held interests in rural properties. Winner of the South Australian Amateur Golf Championship in 1924, he was captain (1950 and 1956) and president (1961-66) of the Royal Adelaide Golf Club. He enjoyed cricket and casting for salmon. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 19 May 1969 at his Medindie home and was buried in North Road cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $438,551.

Neville Swift sailed for Britain after the outbreak of World War I and was commissioned in the East Lancashire Regiment on 26 June 1915. He served (from October) in France, but was wounded near Pozières in August 1916 and invalided to Britain. Two months later he returned to the Western Front. Wounded again in January 1917, he recovered in England and by October was back with his unit as an acting captain and company commander. During the fighting in December, his part of the front line came under heavy shelling: he dug out buried men, reorganized the line and established new posts while the enemy bombardment continued. He was awarded the Military Cross.

In January 1918 Swift led his company in a relief operation, carried out under a sustained barrage. He achieved his objective, won a Bar to his M.C. and was promoted acting major. Two months later the Germans mounted an offensive on the Somme. Attached to the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, Swift commanded his battalion in a successful counter-attack, but was wounded on 27 March and died next day. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Peel (compiler), The Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 1929-1969 (Lond, 1976)
  • I. A. McDonald et al, Super Ardua (Melb, 1981)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 20 Sept 1969
  • Sabretache, 26, July/Sept 1985
  • Observer (Adelaide), 23 Aug 1924
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Sept 1968, 20 May 1969.

Citation details

Jane Harford and Neville Hicks, 'Swift, Sir Brian Herbert (1893–1969)', 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1893
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


19 May, 1969 (aged 76)
Medindie, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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