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Biographical entry Stirling, Sir Edward Charles (1848 - 1919)

Knight Bachelor 1917; CMG 1892; MRCS July 23rd 1872; FRCS Dec 10th, 1874; MB Cantab 1873; MA MD 1880; DSc 1909; FRS 1893.

Strathalbyn, Australia
20 March 1919
Ethnologist, General surgeon, Palaeontologist and Politician


Born at Strathalbyn in South Australia in 1848, and was educated at St Peter's College, Adelaide. He was one of a group of young men who in the mid-sixties left South Australia for Cambridge, and matriculated from Trinity College. On his way to England he spent a year or more in Germany and France.

While still at Cambridge he began the study of his profession, and after graduating BA with honours in the Natural Science Tripos in 1869 went to St George's Hospital, where he was appointed House Surgeon and worked his way up through the staff through the usual gradations, becoming in time Assistant Surgeon and Lecturer on Physiology as well as on Operative Surgery in the Medical School. He was Surgeon at the same time to the Belgrave Hospital for Children.

In 1877 he took a trip to South Australia, married, and returned to London, intending to settle there as a consultant. Nostalgia however, and other reasons influenced him and his wife, and they returned to Adelaide in 1881. Here there was plenty of scope for a man of Stirling's energy and abilities. His experience as a lecturer on the subject pointed to him as the fit and proper person in the community to undertake the teaching of physiology in the newly founded University of Adelaide. His high qualifications also secured for him the position of Hon Medical Officer for the Adelaide Hospital. His scientific tastes predisposed him to the study of anthropology. For a hobby he amused himself with gardening. Not content with four such strings to his bow, he entered Parliament, and served as a Member for North Adelaide for three years, but was not re-elected.

The young University lacked laboratories and apparatus, and Stirling was necessarily confined to teaching the elements of biology. It was his great merit, however, that he saw the possibility of establishing a curriculum for the MB degree. Through him, too, a wealthy colonist, Sir Thomas Elder, endowed a Chair of Chemistry, and the Medical School of the University started in 1885. After about two years Stirling chiefly arranged for the continuance of the MB course with the help of local talent. He was for thirty-four years the acknowledged doyen of the Medical School. His lectureship was converted into a professorship in 1900, and he was also in his active period a Member of the University Council, and Dean of the Faculties of Medicine and Science.

Soon after Stirling's appointment to the Adelaide Hospital the staff became differentiated into Physicians, Surgeons and an Ophthalmologist. For several years Stirling acted as a Surgeon, and did most creditable work; he published reports of the first successful removal of a uterine fibroid by the abdominal route, making use of the serre-noeud (Australas Med Gaz, 1885, iv, 53), and of the first successful vaginal extirpation of the uterus for cancer (Ibid, 1886-7, vi, 89; Med Jour Austral, 1887, ix, 1). His reports now seem almost too minute in detail, but they are written in an excellent style, his Cambridge training coming strongly into evidence. He did indeed once endeavour to start as a Consulting Surgeon; fortunately he was independent of practise, for the patients did not come.

Stirling shone as an ethnologist and palaeontologist, and the Adelaide Museum is a lasting memorial of his work as director of the institution. Its ethnological department is second to none in the Australian states. In palaeontology his name will always be associated with the Diprotodon, the mammoth wombat which was restored from bones found in 1892 in the dry Lake Callabonna (otherwise Lake Mulligan) (Zool Soc Proc, 1893, 473), and the Genyornia Newtoni, the rival of the Moa, found in the same districts (S Austral Roy Soc Trans, 1896, xx, 171; with A H C ZIETZ). His researches gained him a FRS in 1893.

On such vexed questions as whether the platypus lays eggs, and as to the phenomena attending the parturition and lactation of the ordinary marsupials (Zool Soc Proc, 1889, 433), Stirling dissipated many long-cherished fairy-tales. Another biological triumph was his description of the Notoryctes typhlops, the blind marsupial mole (S Austral Roy Soc Trans, 1891, xiv, 154 etc). He was too, something of an explorer. His ride across Australia with Lord Kintore's party may not have been one of the highest importance to science, though it gained him the CMG in 1892; but a far more important piece of work was his association with the Horn Expedition of 1894, when he acted as Medical Officer and anthropologist.

He was an active public man, was President of the first State Children's Council, was connected with societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and succeeded in carrying through Parliament the Act enfranchising the women of South Australia. He was conspicuous as a preserver of the fast-disappearing fauna of South Australia; took great pride in his garden at Mount Lofty, a show place; shot well and could ride camel or horse. When it is added that his delight was to do the work of 'Jerry Cruncher' in an aboriginal burying-ground or to pay a visit to a whale stranded about five hundred miles away from the city, some idea has to be given of his many activities, his boundless energy, and full life.

When out duck-shooting on Jan 1st, 1919, with a temperature of 105 in the shade, he contracted an illness which led to his death by heart failure on March 20th, 1919. In 1877 he married Miss Jane Gilbert, daughter of the owner of a well-known station and vineyard, Pewsey Vale. At the time of his death he was Professor of Physiology at the University, Consulting Surgeon to the Adelaide Hospital, and Director of the Adelaide Museum. He was succeeded in the Professorship by his son-in-law, T Brailsford Robertson, who died Jan 18th, 1930.

"Observations on Certain Eruptions of the Skin, which occur after Recent Operations and Injuries," 8vo, London, 1880; reprinted from St George's Hosp Rep, 1879, x 519.
"Address in Surgery," 8vo, Melbourne, 1889; reprinted from Trans Intercolon Med Cong Australas, Melbourne, 1889.
"Hydatid Disease" (with JOSEPH COOKE VERCO) in Allbutt's System of Medicine, 1907, ii.
Anthropology of the Horn Exploring Expedition to Central Australia.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit Med Jour, 1919, i, 784. Med Jour Austral, 1919, i, 309 with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons