AMA Victoria

Major-General Rupert Downes was one of Australia’s greatest military medical men. He was born on 10 February 1885, the youngest of fifteen children of Major-General Francis Downes, who was the last Commandant of the Victorian Army before Federation.

Rupert was educated at Haileybury College and the University of Melbourne, graduating in medicine in 1907. He obtained the MD in 1911 and Master of Surgery in 1912. He became a paediatric surgeon at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

While at school he had joined the Victorian Voluntary Field Artillery (St Kilda “B” Battery) but after graduation transferred to the Australian Army Medical Corps, being promoted to Major in 1913. On the outbreak of war he enlisted, was given command of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance and promoted Lieutenant Colonel, the youngest in the AIF. Before sailing for Egypt he was transferred to the 3rd Light Horse, which he led with distinction at Gallipoli.

On the formation of the Anzac Mounted Division in 1916, Downes became its Assistant Director of Medical Services with the rank of Colonel. When General Harry Chauvel formed the Desert Mounted Corps he brought Downes with him to be Assistant Director of Medical Services of the Corps and also Assistant Director of Medical Services of the Australian Empire Force (Middle East), based in Egypt, successfully combining the two roles for the remainder of the war. Downes was remarkable as innovator and organizer. His novel patient transport methods, deployment of mobile surgical units and antimalarial measures were of major importance to Chauvel’s success. He was mentioned in dispatches six times and was invested CMG in 1918.

After the war he resumed his civilian surgical practice but also continued with military medical commitments. In 1921 he was a member of the committee planning reorganization of the Army Medical Service. He was appointed Deputy Director of Medical Services, 3rd Military District (Victoria). As well as holding many training exercises, he was active in recruitment of young medicos. In 1934 he was appointed Director-General of Medical Services. In the five years leading up to the outbreak of war, Downes organized army medical equipment, imported large quantities of drugs and medical equipment and encouraged local manufacture of many other items. He successfully pressed for the building of major military hospitals in State capitals, arguing that after the war they could be used as repatriation hospitals.

Outside his heavy military commitments, Downes was also extraordinarily energetic. He was Commissioner of St John Ambulance Brigade in Victoria from 1921 until his death. He was a member of the Board of Victorian Civil Ambulance Service, chairman of the Masseurs Registration Board, a councillor of Red Cross in Victoria and chairman of its National Council in 1939. He served on the BMA Victorian Branch council for many years and was President in 1935. A position that he felt was a great honour and recognition by his colleagues. Along with Fetherston he was responsible as BMA President, for the creation of the Committee for the Coordination of Medical Services. He was Chair and insisted that there be two other representatives of the BMA. This Committee was activated in 1938 and was responsible for the delivery of medical services to the armed services and equally for the civilian population throughout World War 2.

During the second World War Downes was appointed Inspector-General General of medical services by the Minister of the Army, Sir Percy Spender. When General Sir Thomas Blamey reorganized the army in 1942 he appointed Sir Samuel Burston as Director-General of Army Medical Services and Downes as Director of Medical Services of the second army (based in Australia). Downes was invited to write the medical history of Australia in the war. He was actively engaged in this when he decided to accompany Major-General George Vasey and his staff to New Guinea to see for himself this phase of the war. Their plane crashed during a thunderstorm off Cairns and all aboard were killed. Downes and Vasey were buried with full military honours in Cairns Military Cemetery.

Downes is remembered by the triennial Rupert Downes Memorial Lecture of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. The biography of this remarkable man, “Surgeon and Soldier”, was written by Dr Ian Howie-Willis.

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