Home History of Medicine, Dentistry & Health Sciences
Biographical entry

Home | Browse | Search | Previous | Next

Barrett, James William (1862 - 1945)

Image of Barrett, James William
Archival/Heritage ResourcesPublished Resources
Ophthalmologist, Physiologist, Educator and Administrator
Born: 27 February 1862  Emerald Hill (South Melbourne), Victoria, Australia.  Died: 6 April 1945  Toorak, Victoria, Australia.

James Barrett was one of the most influential and controversial medical identities in early twentieth century Australia. After undertaking medical training at the University of Melbourne and demonstrating in physiology and histology, he conducted research on the eyes of animals and lectured on the physiology of the special senses, 1897-37.

In 1901 he was elected to the University Council and in 1913 he was joint secretary of a committee appointed to inquire into the University's administration. He later became Vice-Chancellor of the University (1931-34), Deputy Chancellor (1934) and Chancellor (1935-39). He was a well-known "progressive" and a public figure who made friends and enemies with equal ease.

Career Highlights

After studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, James Barrett joined the resident medical staff of the Melbourne Hospital in the early 1880s and became a strong advocate of antisepsis. He went to London for further training, working as a demonstrator in physiology at King's College, London, and gaining his MRCS in 1884 and his FRCS in 1887.

On his return to Melbourne in 1887, he joined the University of Melbourne Medical Faculty staff as a demonstrator in physiology and histology, after which he was promoted to a lectureship in physiology.

Early in the twentieth century he joined the University Council and, in 1913, he asked it to invite the Faculty of Medicine to give its opinion on the establishment of chairs in clinical medicine, clinical surgery, experimental medicine and surgery. There is no evidence that the Faculty discussed this matter, and it was not until 1944 that the first of these professorships - that of Professor in Experimental Medicine - was created and an additional eleven years passed before clinical Chairs in Medicine and Surgery were established.

As Chancellor, Barrett came into conflict with the Vice-Chancellor, Raymond Priestley, who was opposed to Barrett's attempts to retain control of the administration of the University. He seemed to have some insight into his tendency to spread himself widely, if thinly, once describing himself as "a man of catholic tastes, with an unconquerable propensity for having a finger in every pie".


Appointed first secretary of the Medical Students Society of the University of Melbourne.

1881 - 1882

Graduates in medicine from the University of Melbourne, MB 1881 and ChB 1882.

1884 - 1887

Undertakes further studies at King's College, London, graduating MRCS (1884) and FRCS (1887).


Forms an association with the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.


Awarded an MD and appointed demonstrator in physiology and histology at the University of Melbourne.


Gains a Master of Surgery degree (ChM) at the University of Melbourne.


Appointed honorary assistant lecturer in the physiology of the special senses at the University of Melbourne, a position he retains for forty years.


Joins the Council of the University of Melbourne.


Founds the Bush Nursing Association with his sister, Edith, also a University of Melbourne medical graduate.


Appointed joint secretary (with Richard Berry) of a committee established to look into the University 's administration.

1914 - 1915

On active service with the Australian Imperial Force's 1st General Hospital.

1916 - 1919

War service with British Army in Royal Army Medical Corps.


Elected Vice-Chancellor on the death of Sir John Monash.


Becomes Deputy Chancellor of the University.


Appointed President of the British Medical Association.

1935 - 1939

Holds the position of Chancellor of the University. On his retirement in 1939 he was on twenty-eight committees, and president of a dozen of them.


Retires as honorary lecturer on the physiology of the special senses.


Inaugural President, Ophthalmalogical Society of Australia.


Structure based on ISAAR(CPF) - click here for an explanation of the fields.Prepared by: Ann Westmore
Created: 2 August 2002
Modified: 1 December 2004

Published by Centre for the Study of Health and Society, 8 September 2003
Submit any comments, questions, corrections and additions
Prepared by: Acknowledgements
Updated: 12 January 2009

[ Top of page | History of Medicine, Dentistry & Health Sciences Home | Browse | Search ]