Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Rupert Allan Willis (1898–1980)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published:

Rupert Allan Willis (1898-1980), pathologist, was born on 24 December 1898 at Yarram, Victoria, elder son of Australian-born parents Benjamin James Willis, bank accountant, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Giles, née James. Educated at Yarram State and Melbourne High schools, and the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1922; M.D., 1929; D.Sc., 1932), he spent two years as a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne. On 14 February 1924 at Warrandyte he married with Presbyterian forms Alice Margaret Tolhurst (d.1962), a nurse. The couple moved to Lilydale, Tasmania, where Rupert entered general practice and carried out histological research in a backyard laboratory, studying diseased tissue from animals.

Returning to Melbourne in 1927, Willis was appointed medical superintendent of the Austin Hospital for Incurable and Chronic Diseases, Heidelberg. One reform he instituted was to remove the word 'Incurable' from the institution's title. His studies resulting from the hundreds of post-mortem examinations he performed there, many on cancer victims, led to the award of his doctorates.

Willis became hospital pathologist at the Alfred Hospital in 1930. His first monograph, The Spread of Tumours in the Human Body (London, 1934), was based on his work, for which he was to be awarded the David Syme research prize (1935). Granted a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1933, he conducted research on the transplantation of embryonic tissues at the Buckston Browne Research Farm at Downe, Kent, England, under Sir Arthur Keith. Back at the Alfred in 1935, he demonstrated post-mortem examinations for medical students and lectured at the university. Under his guidance the hospital's output in pathological testing trebled by 1940.

In 1945 Willis was appointed Collins professor of human and comparative pathology at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. He published Pathology of Tumours in 1948. That year he transferred to the Royal Cancer Hospital, Fulham, as director of pathology, his work resulting in Principles of Pathology (1950). In 1950 he moved to the University of Leeds as professor of pathology. The duties included research, teaching, administration and consultation with regional medical practitioners. His personal research was to culminate in The Borderland of Embryology and Pathology (1958). Retiring and unassuming by nature, he found university politics and committee work a stressful distraction from scholarship. Recurring illness eventually prompted his early retirement to Nancledra, Cornwall, in 1955.

At his cottage, Riverside, Willis developed a private laboratory supported by Medical Research Council grants. The University of Leeds allowed doctoral students to work with him there. Assessing the effects of cigarette smoke on the lung tissue of rats was a major project of the laboratory from 1959. Next year he and Margaret revisited Australia; he was keynote speaker at the first Victorian Cancer Congress. He occupied the Macfarlane chair of experimental medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1963-64, and returned to Australia for three extended working holidays in 1964-65, 1973-74 and 1975-76. In 1969 he had moved to Heswall, Cheshire, to live in semi-retirement with his daughter and her family.

Five ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall and wiry, Willis was dark-haired, of ruddy-brown complexion and meticulously neat in dress and personal habits. A generous friend, he enjoyed warm relationships with his colleagues, staff and students. He had diverse talents and interests—acrobatics, juggling, Chinese porcelain, classical music, gardening and mineralogy. Proud of his origins, he always travelled on an Australian passport. As well as fellowships in the Royal colleges of Physicians, Surgeons and Pathologists, England, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia (Australasia), he received honorary doctorates from the universities of Perugia, Italy, and Glasgow. He died on 26 March 1980 at Birkenhead, Merseyside, and was cremated with Anglican rites; his daughter and son survived him. Harley Griffiths' portrait of him is held by the Austin & Repatriation Medical Centre.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Pathology, University of Melbourne, The Melbourne School of Pathology (Melb, 1962)
  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • E. W. Gault and A. Lucas, A Century of Compassion (Melb, 1982)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2, 1976-1990 (Syd, 1994)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 13 Jan 1979, p 15, 9 Aug 1980, p 166
  • American Journal of Surgical Pathology, 4, no 5, Oct 1980, p 511
  • Pathology, 12, Oct 1980, p 649
  • Joint Autobiography of Margaret and Rupert Willis (manuscript, State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Willis, Rupert Allan (1898–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 May 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]


24 December, 1898
Yarram, Victoria, Australia


26 March, 1980 (aged 81)
Birkenhead, Merseyside, England

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.