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Biographical entry Coates, Sir Albert Ernest (1895 - 1977)

Kt 1955; OBE 1946; MRCS and FRCS 1953; MB BS Melbourne 1924; MD 1926; MS 1927; Hon LLD 1964; FRACS 1932.

28 January 1895
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
8 October 1977
Anatomist and General surgeon


Albert Ernest Coates was born on 28 January 1895 at Ballarat, Victoria. His father was a minor postal official and his grandparents had emigrated from Suffolk and Cornwall, attracted by the news of the gold discovery.

Leaving school at the age of eleven he decided early to become a doctor and he worked at a succession of jobs while studying for the entrance examination to Melbourne University. The outbreak of the first world war, during which he served as a medical orderly at Gallipoli and in the Intelligence Corps in France, interrupted his university career. He graduated MB BS in 1924; proceeded to MD in 1926 and MS in 1927, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1932. He served his resident year at the Royal Melbourne Hospital where he became successively honorary surgeon to outpatients in 1927, an inpatient surgeon in 1935 and consultant surgeon in 1954. From 1935 to 1941 he was surgeon to the neurosurgical unit. He lectured in anatomy at the University of Melbourne from 1925 to 1928 and in surgical anatomy from 1935 to 1949, and taught anatomy at the Victorian National Gallery from 1926 to 1934. He was Stewart Lecturer in surgery at the University from 1949 to 1956. He was twice President of the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association, and in 1964 became Foundation Fellow of the Australian Medical Association.

While in the anatomy department Coates performed a series of experiments into the function of the sympathetic nervous system, studying the effects on muscle tone of cutting the nerves. It was found that this operation had little effect on the muscles, as did sympathetic ramisection for the treatment of spastic muscle.

During the second world war he served as senior surgeon to the Australian forces in Malaya and in Sumatra where he was taken prisoner. His outstanding service as chief medical officer to the Allied Prisoner of War Hospital in Thailand will never be forgotten by all those who had the misfortune to share with him the dreadful experience of living and working in the appalling railway construction camps, where he carried out unending surgical work with the crudest of facilities in conditions of starvation and disease. His forceful personality helped many to survive who might without his presence have succumbed to the conditions.

As a surgeon he was bold and dexterous and a skilled, successful and popular teacher. He always had the well-being of his patients foremost in his mind and he never forgot a patient. He was twice married: his first wife died in 1934 and he married again in 1936. There were two sons (both medical graduates) and three daughters. He died on 8 October 1977.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 19 October 1977; Brit med J 1977, 2, 1159; Med J Aust, 1979, 1, 276-7].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England