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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ellis, Henry Augustus (1861–1939)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Henry Augustus Ellis (1861-1939) physician and politician, was born on 24 July 1861 at Omagh, Tyrone, Ireland, fourth son of Colonel Francis Ellis and his wife Louisa, née McMahon. He was educated at St Columba's College, Dundrum, and privately at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, before studying medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1879 (M.B., 1884; Ch.B., 1885). He migrated to Sydney in 1885, practised at Double Bay and was honorary surgeon at the Sydney Hospital in 1891-92. He had studied the growth of germs and collaborated with Dr Herbert Butcher in experiments designed to exterminate rabbits by spreading disease among them. In Sydney he married a Miss Spear.

In 1894 Ellis went to Perth. From 1897 he was a health officer and superintendent of the government sanatorium on the Coolgardie goldfield. He drew up a code of by-laws which was later copied on other goldfields, and gained a reputation as a kindly, effective practitioner who was also a learned if at times abstract conversationalist over a wide range of literary and political thought.

In 1899-1900 he led a campaign to separate the goldfields from Western Australia, if the Perth government should refuse to join the Federation. He was the prime organizer, draftsman and propagandist for the Federal League, whose motto was 'Separation for Federation'. In 1901 Ellis was an unsuccessful candidate for the first Senate elections, but in 1904 he won the Coolgardie seat in the Legislative Assembly for the Labor Party: he supported equal pay for women, old-age pensions, compulsory arbitration and the White Australia policy. In parliament he advocated an eight-hour day for nurses and was briefly chairman of committees: his long-winded speeches usually covered a mass of detailed analysis. Disenchanted with Labor's premier, Henry Daglish, he led the attack in August 1905 on government proposals to buy the Midland Railway, thus precipitating the government's defeat and resignation. That year he left the party after a pre-selection wrangle; in the election he stood as an Independent, but lost. He resumed practice in Coolgardie and served on the Municipal Council in 1912.

On 4 April 1914 he married Kassie Gordon Wylie, a young schoolteacher, and they went to Britain. Ellis represented the Western Australian government at the International Congress on Medical Electrology and Radiology at Lyons, France. He worked through World War I as a tuberculosis officer at Middlesbrough Hospital, Yorkshire, and was a commandant of the Red Cross Society. From 1919 he was assistant physician at Margaret Street Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, London. He then practised privately in Harley Street as a specialist in tuberculosis, having studied miners' phthisis. His publications displayed an awareness of psychological factors in sickness. His main work involved a talented elucidation of constitutional types from a chemical point of view: he was imaginative and inventive and his analyses of urine were unusually elaborate.

Ellis was also an inventor, a good draughtsman and amateur photographer. His flowing moustache and beard contributed to an 'uncommonly commanding appearance' and while he expressed himself whimsically, his thought was unconventional. After a long illness he died at Crowborough, Sussex, on 3 October 1939, survived by his second wife. A brilliant and versatile pioneer on the Western Australian goldfields, he was remembered affectionately despite, or perhaps because of, the high-mindedness which had limited his success in politics.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1913)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887-88, 8, 962, 1890, 5, 37
  • British Medical Journal, 4 Nov 1939, p 932
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 11, 12 Jan 1901
  • Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 17, 24 Oct 1905
  • West Australian, 24 Feb 1940.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Ellis, Henry Augustus (1861–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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