AMA Victoria

Full name: Coates, Sir Albert Ernest
Date of birth: 28 January, 1895
Place of birth Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
Date of death: 8 October, 1977
Occupation Anatomist General surgeon
Titles/qualifications: Kt 1955 OBE 1946 MRCS and FRCS 1953 MB BS Melbourne 1924 MD 1926 MS 1927 Hon LLD 1964 FRACS 1932

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.

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 resection 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, one of seven from the Royal Melbourne Hospital. 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.

He was twice President of the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association 1941 and 1947, and in 1964 became Foundation Fellow of the Australian Medical Association. Albert Coates was elected President of the British Medical Association (Victoria) for 1941, but his participation was curtailed by military commitments. Instead on December 4th 1946 he was re- elected President for 1947.

His activities as President were many and include:

Re-development of the B.M.A. Building – General discussion in which Drs. Coates and Thomas particularly urged the erection of a new building for the Branch. Under the existing Council Bye Law the erection of a professional building in Albert Road would not be possible. Coates suggested a Building Committee be formed. He was anxious to see the Branch housed in premises more in keeping with the position of the profession held in the community. The new structure would contain not only sufficient administrative space, but adequate hall accommodation, library space, and accommodation for social and recreative amenities (also space for letting). The erection of such a building in Melbourne for the profession would give the public a very good reminder that the Professional Association was an active body.

War Memorial Statues and Art Works – agreed to seek the permission of the City Council to the placing of the Memorial in front of the building, where it could be an ornament to the city as a remembrance of the work done by the Australian Medical Corps, as it was one of the finest works of art in Melbourne. 

Veterans, Widows and Children – The purchase of instruments for ex - service doctors, activation of the Rehabilitation Sub Committee of the B.M.A. so that returned Medical Officers would use it as a medium for obtaining advise and help. Drs Coates and Coville, who had examined correspondence between the Medical Secretary and widows of Members killed on Service, were of the opinion that there would need to be assistance in the education of several children. The Medical Secretary was asked to draft a scheme. As a result, for the Widows & Children of Members Killed on Service, Members were requested to subscribe 16/- p.a. to supplement inadequate Commonwealth pensions so that children of colleagues who lost their lives could be given financial assistance particularly for education purposes.

State and Federal Health Services –  Establishment of a Victorian Hospitals Commission. In discussing of a Federal Government’s National Medical Services proposal, the President Dr Coates moved that the Medical Profession through the Medical Council of the B.M.A. in Australia is willing and anxious to cooperate with the Government in bringing d about certain improvements in the existing form of Medical Services for the community. Dr Coates had been in conversation with Pharmacy Guild who had an opportunity of seeing the draft regulation made under the Pharmaceutical Benefit Act. Many of the recommendations put forward, and not hitherto listened to by the authorities, had been incorporated in the regulation. It was an instance of what could be achieved by patient negotiation and insistence upon well-conceived principles. Discussions regarding the State Diabetes Manual,

As a surgeon he was bold and dexterous and a skilled, successful and a 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.

Further reading

  • Biography - Sir Albert Ernest Coates by Dr Rowan Webb. Australian Dictionary of Biography  – an excellent overview of Albert Coates’ early life, war time service and career as a surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

  • Albert Coates: the Memorial Trust – the continuing influence of Albert Coates through the excellent work and members of the Albert Coates Memorial Trust based in Ballarat.