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Donald (Don) Watson (1914–1993)

by David Vickers

This article was published:

Donald Watson (1914–1993), orthopaedic surgeon, was born on 22 September 1914 at Chinju (Jinju), Korea (South Korea), second of the three sons of Victorian-born parents Rev. Robert Darling Watson, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Amy Elizabeth, née Beard, a graduate of the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1910; MA, 1918). His parents were serving with the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s Australian Mission to Korea. He spent most of his childhood in that country, living briefly in Australia (1917–18 and 1925–26) when his parents were on furlough; on the latter occasion they were posted to Mia Mia, Victoria. After they returned to Korea, Don boarded (1926–32) at Geelong College, where he excelled as a sportsman. Intending to become a medical missionary, he studied at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1938), while residing at Ormond College.

By the time he graduated, Watson had rejected his missionary leanings but remained indebted to the church for his medical studies. Anxious to repay the money, he headed for Queensland where salaries were higher. He was a resident and then an orthopaedic registrar at the Brisbane General (Royal Brisbane from 1966) Hospital. There he met Dr Vera Mary Magdalen Madden, who in 1942 was to become Queensland’s first female specialist anaesthetist. The couple were married on 17 May 1940 at the general registry office, Brisbane.

World War II interrupted Watson’s career in orthopaedics. Mobilised on 6 March 1941 as a captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Citizen Military Forces, he spent six months in Papua with the 9th Fortress Company, AAMC. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in August and, promoted to major, served with the 2/19th Field Ambulance in the Netherlands New Guinea (1943–44), and in New Guinea and Bougainville (1944–45); for exceptional service in the field, he was mentioned in despatches (1947). On 9 February 1946 he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He worked as a medical officer in orthopaedics at the Brisbane General Hospital and studied at the University of Queensland (MS, 1950), before entering private practice and becoming a fellow (1964) of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

While maintaining his private practice, Watson held many official appointments. From 1951 he was visiting orthopaedic surgeon at the Brisbane Children’s Hospital. A poliomyelitis epidemic, which hit Maryborough and Bundaberg hard, required him to travel frequently to those centres to treat victims. On the resignation in 1958 of his mentor, Dr T. V. Stubbs-Brown, Watson took office as senior orthopaedic surgeon at both the General and Children’s hospitals, being the first person to do so, and holding the positions until 1974. Later he returned to Royal Brisbane as honorary orthopaedic consultant. He also served on the Queensland Medical (1970–84) and Parole (1975–84) boards,  and as vice-president of the State council of the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade (1980–86).

In addition Watson made major contributions to a range of medical organisations. Serving as visiting orthopaedic surgeon at the Spastic Centre, New Farm (1960s and 1970s), and the Montrose Home for Crippled Children, Corinda, he also sat on the latter’s board (1956–86); in 1982 its Donald Watson Complex was named after him. He was president of the Australian Physiotherapy Association, Queensland branch (1954–56); president of the Australian Medical Association, Queensland branch (1976); and a member of the board of governors of St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital (1980–82). At various times he lectured (1946–65) at the University of Queensland, on splints and bandaging, and on orthopaedics; and he mentored Queensland’s first orthopaedic trainees (1971–73). With so many connections, he was an influential figure who could facilitate any worthwhile venture, yet he remained humble and gentle. For his contributions to medicine and the welfare of crippled children, he was appointed CBE in 1985.

Watson was notable for his wisdom, compassion, humanity, and common sense. A champion of the ill and underprivileged, he steered many of his private patients, especially children, into the public hospital system so they could receive his attention free of charge. He gained wide respect for his opinions; a senior colleague recalled that `Don Watson had one of the most incisive minds in orthopaedics in Brisbane’ (Siu 2003, 397). With his overwhelming sense of public responsibility, he took life seriously, but remained cheerful and had a keen sense of humour. Watson was a devoted family man. He died on 30 May 1993 in Brisbane and, following a Presbyterian service, was cremated. His wife, two sons, and one daughter survived him. He had carried out his father’s injunction to him when young, `if you’re not going to enrol in the church, make sure that you do something to benefit your fellow man’ (Australian Orthopaedic Association 1993, 11).

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • AMAQ Bulletin (Herston, Queensland). `Vale Dr Donald Watson.’ October 1993, 4
  • Australian Orthopaedic Association. Bulletin. `Obituary: Donald Watson.’ August 1993, 11
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX23858
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Watson, D. R. Personal communication
  • Williams, L. M. No Better Profession: Medical Women in Queensland, 18911999. North Tamborine, Qld: Lesley M. Williams, 2006
  • Siu, Simon, ed. History of the Division of Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital. Herston, Qld: Division of Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, 2003

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Vickers, 'Watson, Donald (Don) (1914–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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