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Sir Alfred Edward Rowden White (1874–1963)

by Stephen James

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Edward Rowden White

Sir Alfred Edward Rowden White (1874-1963) and Edward Rowden White (1881-1958), medical practitioners, were born on 5 November 1874 and 14 November 1881 in Hobart, fifth and seventh of seven children of a Tasmanian-born servant Susannah Mary Gooding (d.1888). Although their father was not named when their births were registered, there is evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that they were the sons of (Sir) Samuel James Way, chief justice of South Australia. Way and Gooding never married. Their relationship was kept secret presumably because Susannah's background—her mother and paternal grandparents had been transported to Australia as convicts—would have been socially unacceptable for the wife of an ambitious lawyer. Way looked after Gooding and her children with diligence and affection, and in the 1880s moved them to Melbourne. By that time they were using the surname of White.

Alfred progressed from Alexander Sutherland's Carlton College (dux 1893) to the University of Melbourne (M.B., 1899; B.S., 1900; M.D., 1906), where he lived at Ormond College. In the early years of the new century he held posts as senior medical officer at the Alfred and Children's hospitals, and for six years acted as assistant to (Sir) Richard Stawell. This experience enabled him to establish himself in private practice as a physician. His reputation grew rapidly and he took up honorary appointments at the Children's and St Vincent's hospitals, and the Victorian Foundling Hospital and Infants' Home. He was also a clinical instructor and lecturer to medical students.

Appointed major, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, on 6 June 1917, White served in France with the 2nd Australian General Hospital. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 6 December 1919 and he resumed practice in Melbourne. In 1930 he helped to found the Association of Physicians of Australasia and in 1938 its successor the Royal Australasian College of Physicians; he was a councillor of both and vice-president (1944-46) of the R.A.C.P. He chaired the medical staffs of both the Children's and St Vincent's hospitals before retiring in 1938.

Made wealthy by prudent investments, White was a generous benefactor of medical, cultural and charitable organizations, including the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association (to endow the Sir Richard Stawell oration), the R.A.C.P., the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Rio Vista Gallery, Mildura, the National Theatre Movement of Australia, the National Trust of Australia and the Operation Youth Appeal of the Young Men's Christian Association. Always a strong supporter of the University of Melbourne, he gave money towards the establishment of a chair of medicine and the Rowden White Library in Union House. He and Edward remained close. In 1955 Alfred set up the A. E. Rowden White and Edward R. White Foundation for Medical Research at the Royal Women's Hospital.

Appointed C.M.G. in 1953, White was knighted in 1961. Sir Rowden (as he styled himself) was below average height and solidly built. He displayed a controlled and alert manner, his modulated speaking voice conveying a reluctance to express emotion. Unmarried, he lived for many years with a couple named Kilburn; their daughter Doris, whom he treated as his niece, later kept house and cared for him. He died on 15 January 1963 in his home at Toorak and was cremated. His will directed that the income from the bulk of his estate, sworn for probate at £835,639, be used to finance medical and scientific research at the University of Melbourne under the name of the A. E. Rowden White Foundation. A portrait of him by W. B. McInnes is held by the university.

Edward attended Geelong Church of England Grammar School (senior prefect 1900) and Trinity College, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1907; M.D., 1911), excelling at cricket and tennis. He was a resident at the Melbourne, Children's (where he became the medical superintendent) and Women's hospitals before commencing practice as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, initially as assistant to Rothwell Adam. In 1914 White was appointed honorary obstetrician to the Women's Hospital. Commissioned as captain, A.A.M.C., A.I.F., on 2 October that year, and posted to the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance, he served at Gallipoli and in Sinai and Palestine. In February 1917 he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the 2nd L.H.F.A. Having been mentioned in dispatches, he was demobilized in Melbourne on 12 October that year. Four days later at St John's Church of England, Toorak, he married Gladys Mary Northcote (d.1955).

During a visit to the United States of America in 1928, White reputedly performed—at H. S. Crossen's clinic, St Louis—the first 'Manchester operation' for uterine prolapse undertaken in that country. From 1918 he had been active in the Militia; he was promoted colonel in 1936. Joining the A.I.F. on 1 January 1941, he sailed for Malaya in February as commanding officer of the 2nd/10th Australian General Hospital. The hospital was based at Malacca until January 1942 when it withdrew to Singapore just ahead of the advancing Japanese. White remained composed and in control, though the hospital was virtually in the front line; he was mentioned in dispatches. Taken prisoner next month, he was moved to Formosa (Taiwan) in August and to Manchuria in November 1944. He endured the ordeal with dignity and strength of character, despite his age and news of the death (1942) of his only son, James. Repatriated in October 1945, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 5 February 1946.

That year White retired from the honorary staff of the Women's Hospital. He had played a leading role in the early development and activities in Australia of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In 1947 he took charge of fund-raising to establish the Arthur Wilson Foundation which, among other activities, acquired premises in Melbourne for the Australian regional council of the college. White was 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, had a trim, athletic figure and was always well groomed. Less reserved than his brother, he had a welcoming smile and a warm, cheerful personality. He died on 31 July 1958 in his home at Toorak and was cremated. His only daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1, 1938-75 (Syd, 1988)
  • J. J. Corfield and M. Collins Persse (compilers), Geelong Grammarians, vol 1 (Geelong, Vic, 1996)
  • Corian, Aug 1958
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 13 Dec 1958, p 811, 3 Aug 1963, p 202
  • Australian Journal of Legal History, vol 1, no 2, 1995
  • family papers (copies held on ADB file)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephen James, 'White, Sir Alfred Edward Rowden (1874–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 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

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