Exploring MD’s life a real treat

George Barber.

SIMON DOYLE recently published, along with co-author Jenny Mills, a biography of his great-grandfather George Barber, a doctor who served with the Fremantle Garrison before sailing off to run a venereal disease hospital for unfortunate Anzacs who’d camped right next to an Egyptian brothel district. During his research, he also uncovered a hand-written poem by famed bard Banjo Paterson in his great-grandmother’s journal, which has now been published for the first time.

SOLDIER Sailor Surgeon: The Life of George Barber, which I wrote with Jenny Mills, is a timely addition to those books that acknowledge the contributions of our Anzacs. This one differs in that it specifically covers some of medical history of World War I.

George Barber was my great-grandfather; I first learnt about him when I came across a ribbon-bound bundle of letters and postcards that my grandmother Kathleen Sandover had kept.

These letters, which were the main incentive for writing the book, were from George to his wife Jess, and were sent from Egypt, Gallipoli and various battle zones in France/Belgium during the war.


My curiosity was piqued and I conducted extensive research at places such as the Australian War Memorial and the JS Battye Library, and I uncovered a trove of information about his fascinating role as a pioneering doctor in Kalgoorlie and as deputy director medical services in charge of medical arrangements for the Australian Corps on the Western Front.

George first met Jess Salmond in 1894 on his last trip as a P&O ship doctor. 

She was returning to her home in the Blue Mountains after studying French and German in Switzerland.

On the journey George proposed and then left for England to sort out his business affairs prior to the two of them moving to the nascent WA goldfields.

Jess’ parents were happy for the union but were unlikely to be aware of the fact that George’s family, through his mother, Isabella Loughborough, were directly related to a notorious but hapless early 18th century Barbadian pirate, Stede Bonnet.

The book includes an interesting anecdote about Jess and Banjo Paterson.

Before George had returned from England, Jess was chaperoned to a bush dance by Banjo Paterson who was so grateful for her not mentioning horses that he wrote a poem (the wail of the horse poet) for her in her journal. This is the first time this Banjo poem has been published.

George and Jess spent 17 rambunctious years in Kalgoorlie where George ran the Kalgoorlie Hospital, a period in which they underwent numerous trials and tribulations (including typhoid outbreaks, and political and professional intrigues). 

In 1912 they moved to Perth where George opened a practice in Milligan Street and became heavily engaged in the Civilian Military Force in the Fremantle Garrison, right up to his enlistment at the outbreak of the first word war.

Venereal disease

George arrived in Egypt in January 1917 and was immediately asked to run a venereal disease hospital on the outskirts of Cairo. 

In retrospect the Australian camp based adjacent to the pyramids of Giza was a poor site, with its close proximity to the Cairo brothel district (the Wasa) resulting in an immediate outbreak of venereal disease. 

The soldiers did not acquit themselves very well and were reputed to have the highest incidence of VD of all the forces (and also instigated two riots in the Wasa district. This aspect was glossed over in the official records as a ‘rag’.

He subsequently served on a number of gruesome hospital ships stationed off Gallipoli. 

In January 1916 he was made assistant director of medical services for the 4th Australian Division which left for France in June. 

In April 1918 he was made deputy director medical services for the Australian Corps. 

His skill as an organiser and administrator was most fully appreciated in mid-1918 when trench warfare gave way to mobile warfare and his standing orders became the basis of those for the whole Australian Corps.

Just one week after this appointment he was asked to conduct an autopsy on Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) – it was his autopsy and subsequent report which demonstrated that he was shot by an Australian machine gunner on the ground.

Our book covers medical issues such as shellshock, gassing, trench foot, trench fever, sanitation, influenza, blood resuscitation and venereal disease that confronted soldiers in the war; and shows how the conditions enabled and necessitated many medical advances.

The book also recounts a number of narrow escapes, both on land and sea which, in keeping with his Edwardian demeanour, he showed seeming indifference. 

For example in August 1916, after moving to Albert, close to the front line, George breezily recounted in a letter to Jess: “They put about 200 HG shells into us that night and if any of them had been a direct hit we should have gone to Glory but please don’t worry too much.” 

However, his reassurances to Jess were premature as shortly thereafter: “My office…was unfortunately blown into the street by a shell which wrecked the house… luckily no one was hurt all of us being absent at mess.” 

In May 1925 he was appointed, director general of medical services at Australian Army headquarters, Melbourne. He was in charge of medical services for the Australian Army, as well as the Royal Australian Air Force and the Department of Civil Aviation. 

He held these offices until his retirement from the army on August 20, 1934. The last 17 years of his life were spent in a quiet semi-rural practice at Kalamunda.

Copies of the book can be obtained from simondoyle123@yahoo.com

Leave a Reply