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Archibald Watson (1849–1940)

by Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance

This article was published:

Archibald Watson (1849-1940), by Wiley & Co., 1899

Archibald Watson (1849-1940), by Wiley & Co., 1899

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6346

Archibald Watson (1849-1940), professor of anatomy, was born on 27 July 1849 at Tarcutta, New South Wales, eldest son of Sydney Grandison Watson, pastoralist, and his wife Isabella (d.1861), née Robinson. Educated at a national school in Sydney and in 1861-67 at Scotch College, Melbourne, Archibald excelled in scripture and was a champion light-weight boxer. Acting as his father's agent, he arrived at Levuka, Fiji, on 10 March 1871. He was aboard the Carl on her 1871-72 blackbirding venture in the Solomon Islands and kept a diary. The captain Joseph Armstrong was later sentenced to death for murder and atrocities committed during her previous voyage. On returning to Levuka, Watson was arrested and charged with piracy; J. S. Butters stood bail. On 16 July 1872 Watson was discharged from his bail on entering into his own recognizance of one thousand dollars and left for Melbourne.

In 1873 he travelled to England and Germany where he studied medicine at the Georg-August Universität of Göttingen (M.D., 1878) and the Université de Paris (M.D., 1880). In England he obtained the licentiate (1880) of the Society of Apothecaries, London, and became a member (1882) and fellow (1884) of the Royal College of Surgeons. While assistant demonstrator of anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, he studied surgery under Joseph Lister.

Appointed Elder professor of anatomy at the University of Adelaide in 1885, Watson also became lecturer in pathological anatomy (1887-1903) and in operative surgery (1887-1919). Using vivid language and rapid blackboard sketches, he taught with dramatic intensity. Following a dispute in 1895 over a nursing appointment involving Margaret Graham, the government did not reappoint the board of the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital and the honorary doctors resigned in protest. Watson became consultant surgeon, hoping to continue the teaching of medical students there. After the arrival of Dr William Ramsay Smith and Dr Leith Napier, the new board dismissed Watson for criticizing Napier, but later reinstated him.

Watson initially contributed to medical meetings and based his publications on practical experience. He had developed the habit of recording daily the details of patients seen and operations witnessed; his style was terse, his descriptions precise; his diagrams were finely drawn in pencil, black ink, crayons and water-colours. He also kept daily accounts of expenses. Most of his accounts and surgical notebooks have been preserved. Probably Australia's most precious surgical literary artefact, the notebooks cover the period 1883-1937 and record operations and post-mortems performed in Australia, England, the United States of America, South Africa (while consultant surgeon, Natal Field Force, during the South African War) and in Egypt and Greece (while consultant pathologist with the rank of major, 1st Australian Stationary Hospital in 1915-16). He visited China, South America, Japan, Russia and New Zealand where he usually watched leading surgeons operate, but regarded Sydney's Sir Alexander MacCormick as pre-eminent. Watson was himself to influence Australian surgery through his mastery of anatomy, his association with practising surgeons and by his passion for the preservation of tissues.

An erratic, histrionic genius, he flouted convention and dressed in an old canvas coat. Short, bearded and bespectacled, he spoke six languages and had a firm voice, acid wit and racy vocabulary. He was loved by his family and close friends who called him Archie, by most of his students and colleagues who called him 'Proffie', and by children to whom in later life he had an instant appeal. 'Wattie' was kind to nurses and considerate to the less fortunate. He built elaborate stratagems against those who offended him and then let the matter rest. For transport, he rode a succession of motor cycles in Adelaide and through the country. Having sold the properties he inherited, he lived in boarding houses, at clubs—he belonged to the Athenaeum, Melbourne—or with friends.

Having crossed the equator at the age of 10, he became an inveterate seafarer. In 1923 he was engaged on several coastal vessels; in retirement he travelled to such places as Iceland and the Falkland Islands. He recorded details of his paramours in his personal diaries: he entered the names in Greek, his sexual experiences in Fijian and his actions often in variations of a coloured Maltese cross. Watson spent much of his last four years on Thursday Island, studying the Aborigines and collecting marine specimens. He died on 30 July 1940 on the island and was buried there with Anglican rites. A memorial lecture at the invitation of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons commemorates him; his portrait by W. B. McInnes hangs in the university's anatomy department. His estate was sworn for probate at £58,601; in accordance with his will, his personal letters, stored in the South Australian Museum's crypt, were burnt.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 16, pt 2, 1893
  • Lone Hand, 1 Jan 1914
  • Adelaide University Magazine, 2, no 1, Sept 1919
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 12 Oct 1940, p 361, 27 Sept 1947, p 381, 29 Apr 1950, p 549
  • Adelaide Medical Students Society, AMSS Review, Aug 1961, p 19
  • R. G. Elmslie, ‘The Colonial Career of James Patrick Murray’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 49, no 1, 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20-23 Nov 1872, 1 Mar 1873, 30 Sept 1930, 30 July 1936
  • Observer (Adelaide), 15 Feb 1896, 20 Jan 1900, 26 May 1928
  • News (Adelaide), 31 July 1940
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 15 Aug 1940
  • GRG 2/5/23, 43 and D5390 [Misc] and PRG 128/12/7 and 30/5/7-9 (State Library of South Australia)
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives (Melbourne)
  • Marston collection, folders 33-71, especially MS 1682/65 no 3847-49 (National Library of Australia)
  • Attorney-General and Justice Dept, special bundles, 1836-76, 4/2698B (State Records New South Wales)
  • Land Claims Commission 1875-82, claim no 606, 782 998 (National Archives of Fiji, Suva).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance, 'Watson, Archibald (1849–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Archibald Watson (1849-1940), by Wiley & Co., 1899

Archibald Watson (1849-1940), by Wiley & Co., 1899

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6346

Life Summary [details]


27 July, 1849
Tarcutta, New South Wales, Australia


30 July, 1940 (aged 91)
Thursday Island, Queensland, 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.