The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Major Archibald Watson

Archibald Watson: Eccentric and Bohemian Professor of Anatomy, Military Surgeon and Pathologist

Archibald Watson, was born on 27 July 1849 at Tarcutta, New South Wales, eldest son of Sydney Grandison Watson, pastoralist, and his wife Isabella. Educated at a national school in Sydney and in 1861-67 at Scotch College, Melbourne, Archibald excelled in scripture and was a champion light-weight boxer. Acting as his father's agent, he arrived at Levuka, Fiji, on 10 March 1871. He was aboard the Carl on her 1871-72 blackbirding venture in the Solomon Islands and kept a diary. The captain, Joseph Armstrong was later sentenced to death for murder and atrocities committed during the 'Carl's' previous voyage. On returning to Levuka, Watson was arrested and charged with piracy. On 16 July 1872 Watson was discharged from his bail on entering into his own recognizance of one thousand dollars and left for Melbourne. Having crossed the equator at the age of 10, he became an inveterate seafarer. He recorded details of his paramours in his personal diaries: he entered the names in Greek, his sexual experiences in Fijian and his actions often in variations of a coloured Maltese cross.

In 1873 he travelled to England and Germany where he studied medicine at the Georg-August Universität of Göttingen (M.D., 1878) and the Université de Paris (M.D., 1880). In England he obtained the licentiate (1880) of the Society of Apothecaries, London, and became a member (1882) and fellow (1884) of the Royal College of Surgeons. While assistant demonstrator of anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, he studied surgery under Joseph Lister.

In 1883 he went to Egypt as surgeon with Hicks Pasha's Sudan force.

He was appointed the first Elder professor of anatomy at the University of Adelaide in 1885, Watson also became lecturer in pathological anatomy (1887-1903) and in operative surgery (1887-1919). Using vivid language and rapid blackboard sketches, he taught with dramatic intensity. Watson became consultant surgeon at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1895. He was always a controversial figure. Watson contributed to medical meetings and based his publications on practical experience. He had developed the habit of recording daily the details of patients seen and operations witnessed; his style was terse, his descriptions precise; his diagrams were finely drawn in pencil, black ink, crayons and water-colours. Most of his surgical notebooks have been preserved. Probably Australia's most precious surgical literary artefact, the notebooks cover the period 1883-1937 and record operations and post-mortems performed in Australia, England, the United States of America, South Africa and in Egypt and Greece. He visited China, South America, Japan, Russia and New Zealand where he usually watched leading surgeons operate. Watson was himself to influence Australian surgery through his mastery of anatomy, his association with practising surgeons and by his passion for the preservation of tissues. An erratic, histrionic genius, he flouted convention and dressed in an old canvas coat. Short, bearded and bespectacled, he spoke six languages and had a firm voice, acid wit and racy vocabulary. He was loved by his family and close friends who called him Archie, by most of his students and colleagues who called him 'Proffie', and by children to whom in later life he had an instant appeal. 'Wattie' was kind to nurses and considerate to the less fortunate. For transport, he rode a succession of motor cycles in Adelaide and through the country. Having sold the properties he inherited, he lived in boarding houses, at clubs or with friends.

In January 1900 he obtained leave from Adelaide to attend the Boer War and travelled to South Africa as a passage only doctor on a troopship. There he volunteered as a Special Service officer for the British army. Proceeding to Marizburg he became a volunteer civil surgeon. He was very busy dealing with wounded from Spion Kop and other severe battles. He later replaced Sir W MacCormac as Consulting Surgeon, Natal Field Force, his service being from 14 February 1900 until 14 November 1900. After 11 months hard work, his health gave way and he went to the high veldt for a rest. Subsequently, he worked at Charleston Hospital near Majuba Hill. He was Consulting Surgeon, Johannesburg Volunteers 14 November 1900 to 14 March 1901 At Pretoria, he was given an opportunity to study leprosy and horse sickness. Other diseases investigated were plague and enteric fever. He continued articles to several journals including the British Medical Journal and the Intercolonial Medical Journal. He was awarded a QSA with the clasp Natal although technically he should also have had the clasps South Africa 1901 and Transvaal.

In 1901 following his South African service he travelled to England to look up old friends, typically not bothering to inform the University. He resumed his university work in 1902, ignoring the Universities protestations about his behaviour

In July 1906 he was appointed Honorary Major, Australian Army Medical Corps (Reserve).

On 1 November1914, at the age of sixty-five years, Watson enlisted in the AIF and embarked for the Middle East with the 1st Australian Stationary Hospital, serving as Consulting Surgeon and Pathologist and later 1st Australian General Hospital, Heliopolis. Whilst appreciating his skill, his personal approach to life and his superiors ran him foul of Australia's most senior medical officer in the theatre, Neville Howse VC who sent him home. Howse wrote to Sir William Williams:

"I shall be glad if you will not send him forward again for duty. He is a very charming man but his presence has a very bad influence on the younger men of any unit."

After returning to Australia, he left the army on 7 March 1916. He received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal for World War One.

At the end of the War he retired from his university positions. In 1923 he was engaged on several coastal vessels; in retirement he travelled to such places as Iceland and the Falkland Islands. He went to live in Darwin, where he did much to improve the standards of surgical care in the tropics. He then withdrew from active practice, spending summer in Melbourne and Adelaide, the winter months on Thursday Island studying the Aborigines and collecting marine specimens; and visiting his brothers on Gregory Downs. From 1936 he made Thursday Island his permanent home. Feeling that the advance of age was impairing his mobility, at the age of eighty-six years he took delivery of a new motor bike. He died on 30 July 1940 on the island and was buried there with Anglican rites. A memorial lecture at the invitation of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons commemorates him; his portrait by W. B. McInnes hangs in the University of Adelaide's anatomy department.

David Deasey with assistance from Don Pedlar

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