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Sir William George Dismore Upjohn (1888–1979)

by John V. Hurley

This article was published:

Sir William George Dismore Upjohn (1888-1979), surgeon, was born on 16 March 1888 at Narrabri, New South Wales, son of Australian-born parents George Dismore Upjohn, watchmaker, and his wife Jane, née McKenzie. William was educated locally, then in Victoria at Wesley College and the University of Melbourne (M.B., 1909; B.S., 1910; M.D., 1912; M.S., 1913). He and his contemporaries at the medical school, (Sir) Alan Newton and (Sir) Victor Hurley, were to dominate surgery in Melbourne. Following residencies at the (Royal) Melbourne and (Royal) Children's hospitals, Upjohn took the part-time post of Stewart lecturer in anatomy and entered private practice as assistant to Frank Cole.

Having served in the Militia, Upjohn was appointed major, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, on 1 May 1915. He served as pathologist to the 3rd Australian General Hospital, Lemnos, during the latter part of the Gallipoli campaign. Under the leadership of (Sir) Charles Martin, the director of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, he investigated a dysentery epidemic that ravaged the Australian troops. In April 1916 he moved to France with the 2nd A.G.H. Six months later he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive February 1917). As the hospital's senior surgeon, he was a member of surgical teams detached to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station and the 11th A.C.C.S. He was twice mentioned in dispatches (1918) and was appointed O.B.E. (1919). After the Armistice he studied at the London and Middlesex hospitals, and qualified as a fellow (1919) of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 13 February 1920 in Melbourne.

That year Upjohn was appointed surgeon to out-patients at both the Melbourne and Children's hospitals. He resigned from the latter in 1927 on his promotion to in-patient surgeon at the Melbourne, a position he was to retain until he retired in 1948. At St John's Church of England, Toorak, on 16 March 1927 he married Norma Sarah Gregory Withers. A foundation member (1927) of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons, he presided over the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association in 1933-34. During World War II he succeeded (1942) Newton as deputy-chairman of the Central Medical Co-ordination Committee, which controlled the allocation of medical manpower to meet military and civilian needs. He was also a visiting surgeon at the 115th Australian General Hospital, Heidelberg.

Never one to advise surgery unless it was absolutely necessary, Upjohn regarded himself as a 'physician who operates'. He was an extremely skilled general surgeon. His war experiences and his work at the Children's, where bone disease was common, gave him a special interest in orthopaedics. He taught by example rather than precept, and enlivened his rather dry delivery with ironic humour. In his later years he criticized his own lack of initiative and that of his colleagues who, he claimed, had 'maintained surgery at a high standard' without contributing 'any original discovery or procedure'. He published 'Forty Years of Surgery at the Royal Melbourne Hospital' (Royal Melbourne Hospital Clinical Reports, 1948); he also gave the ninth (Sir George) Syme memorial lecture, 'Since Syme: Transformation and Dislocation' (Medical Journal of Australia, 1953), and the 1960 Sir Richard Stawell oration, 'Infectious Enthusiasm' (M.J.A., 1960).

Upjohn chaired Victoria's Consultative Council on Poliomyelitis and the advisory committee to the Hospitals and Charities Commission. In 1958 he was knighted. He joined the committee of management of Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1959 and served as president from 1960 until he retired on his eightieth birthday. Elected (1959) to the council of the University of Melbourne, he had terms as deputy-chancellor (1962-66 and 1970-73) and chancellor (1966-67). In 1962 the university conferred on him an LL.D. (honoris causa).

A man of few words, he insisted on being addressed as Dr Upjohn (because of his M.D.), commonly wore the short black coat and striped trousers of a London consultant, and drove the same black Rolls-Royce motorcar (not always slowly) for fifty years. He appeared at first meeting to be an extreme and rigid conservative. The reverse was the case, and many knew him to be kindly and compassionate. Apart from medicine, his interests lay in the humanities, especially English literature and history. From this reading and his vast medical experience, he gave advice, laced with common sense and wisdom, to all who sought his help. In committee he usually said little, but what he said was always to the point. At one faculty meeting a heated debate took place over a proposal to name a new building after a recently retired member. Upjohn's single query, 'Was any other name considered?', abruptly ended the discussion.

Late in life Sir William claimed that his greatest contribution to the Children's Hospital had been to insist that (Dame) Jean Macnamara and (Dame) Kate Campbell be appointed to its staff. Long before any changes were proposed, he condemned the honorary system in public hospitals as archaic. Moreover, he deplored the increasing length and specialization of university medical courses, and regretted the absence of general practitioners from their staff. In his view, the nationalization of medicine was inevitable. He died on 18 January 1979 at Toorak and was cremated; his wife, their two daughters and their elder son survived him. Peter Zageris's portrait (1973) of Upjohn is held by the University of Melbourne, which established (1974) the Upjohn medal for distinguished service to medicine in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940)
  • K. F. Russell, The Melbourne Medical School 1862-1962 (Melb, 1977)
  • A. Gregory, The Ever Open Door (Melb, 1998)
  • P. Yule, The Royal Children's Hospital (Syd, 1999)
  • private information.

Citation details

John V. Hurley, 'Upjohn, Sir William George Dismore (1888–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 14 April 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]


16 March, 1888
Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia


18 January, 1979 (aged 90)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.