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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Paton, Robert Thomson (1856–1929)

by C. J. Cummins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Robert Thomson Paton (1856-1929), medical officer, was born on 16 March 1856 in Edinburgh, son of John Govan Stewart Paton, carver and gilder, and his wife Catherine, née Thomson. After education at Dalkeith School, he began to study medicine at the Extra Mural Medical School in Edinburgh, but left for Australia in 1876. He worked as a doctor's assistant at Wallsend and Bathurst, New South Wales, and in Queensland; as part-owner of a yacht he visited Samoa and Fiji. In 1884 he returned to Edinburgh where he qualified as licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (1885) and licentiate (1885) and fellow (1887) of the Royal College of Surgeons; he also graduated from the Free University of Brussels (M.D., 1885). He served as house surgeon at the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital, Moorfields, and on 1 July 1886 married Jane Tritschler at the parish church, Leytonstone, Essex.

Returning to New South Wales, Paton was appointed visiting surgeon at Trial Bay Prison on 1 March 1887. In May 1891 he was promoted medical officer and vaccinator in Sydney, and visiting surgeon to Darlinghurst Gaol; he was also police surgeon. Interested in pathology, and inspired by the work of J. Ashburton Thompson, he studied leprosy patients and in 1894 published an article 'On beri beri in New South Wales' in the Australasian Medical Gazette. His experience as police surgeon made him a strong advocate of cremation.

In March 1905 Paton became chairman of the Central Board for Old-Age Pensions, and in 1908 medical inspector of charities. When his section was absorbed into the restructured Department of Public Health in 1913, he was appointed first director-general and president of the Board of Health. He believed the State's public health legislation to be less advanced than that of other States. Although hampered by staff shortages in World War I he gave priority to assisting the military authorities. He advocated open-air treatment for some conditions and helped to develop the Coast Hospital as an infectious diseases hospital and the Waterfall Home for Consumptives. Five special hospitals were opened during his term. With his deputy, W. G. Armstrong, he planned the campaigns against major smallpox and pneumonic influenza epidemics. He was a member of the Baby Clinics, Pre-maternity and Home Nursing Board in 1914-15. In 1919 he was appointed commissioner under the Venereal Diseases Act, 1918. He firmly believed in State control of public health and criticized Commonwealth intrusion.

After he retired in April 1921, Paton remained on the Board of Health until 1929. He practised privately in venereology before becoming medical officer for Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd in 1923. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1922 and was a fellow of the Royal Institute of Public Health, London. Described as courteous, kind and thoughtful, he inspired the respect and affection of his colleagues. Although firm and determined, he was diffident in associating with professional bodies and meetings.

Paton died on 17 February 1929 and was cremated. His wife and five sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • C. J. Cummins, A History of Medical Administration in New South Wales 1788-1973 (Syd, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1914-15, 4, p 169, 1915-16, 5, p 1, 1923, 3, p 123
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 27 Apr 1929, p 569
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Apr 1921, 2 Jan 1922, 18, 19 Feb 1929.

Citation details

C. J. Cummins, 'Paton, Robert Thomson (1856–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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