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Sir William Dudley Refshauge (1913–2009)

by John Farquharson

Sir William Refshauge was an innovative administrator, who pioneered many original initiatives in Australian health and medical practice and in his military service. But probably his greatest contribution was as director-general of the Commonwealth Health Department, where he was considered ‘one of the truly great health administrators’.

As his son, Andrew Refshauge, pointed out in his eulogy, four initiatives stood out from his time at the department: doctors fees, dental care, alcohol and drug abuse, and dung beetles. To make health care more affordable the Government wanted to bring in a price benchmark – the common fee. It fell to Refshauge to get the AMA to support the scheme. Using his patience, personal and professional contacts, he succeeded within three months to get their support. The common fee later became the scheduled fee, an essential element for the implementation of Medibank.

Free dental care in schools was introduced under his direction. In 1965, with him as chairman, the National Health and Medical Research Council, recommended that for the dental care of children, ‘Australia should now give consideration to the utilisation of dental auxiliary personnel’. This led to the introduction of dental therapists into Australia; now there are over 1500 here.

From his early days as a health administrator, he recognised the problem of alcohol and drug abuse. He used all his negotiating skills, in the face of rejection, to never let this off the agenda and finally got into place harm minimisation schemes. Sir William was inducted, by those involved in the treatment and prevention of alcohol and drug abuse, into their Hall of Fame.

With others, he was responsible for the importation of dung beetles into Australia in 1966 when the program to bring the problem of sheep and cow dung under control and minimise the fly population, was begun.

Sir William also facilitated investigation of Thalidomide, legalisation of the advertising of contraceptives, expansion of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme, universal vaccinations, improvement in Aboriginal health, and improved quarantine. He initiated anti-smoking campaigns, and extended fluoridation in our water.

His work brought international recognition. He led the Australian delegation to the World Health Organisation each year from 1962 to 1973. In 1971 he was the first Australian elected president of the World Health Assembly. No other Australian has held that position since. 

Sir William, who died on 27 May aged 96, was born in Carlton, Victoria, on 3 April 1913, son of Francis Christopher, a school principal, and his wife, Margaret Craig. He was educated at Hampton High School and Scotch College, where he rowed in the 1st Eight and played in the1st XV111 football team.  His father died in 1930 at the height of the Great Depression and his mother sold their Melbourne home and moved to a dairy farm in the country. He worked on the farm while completing his medical degree at Melbourne University where he was awarded a Blue for rowing. He graduated in 1938 and became a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital in 1939. 

At the Alfred Hospital he met Sister Helen Elizabeth Allwright, whom he married in August, 1942, after he returned form the Middle East, where, as a medical officer, he saw action in the battles of Bardia, the capture of Tobruk, the Greek campaign and the battle of Crete. Having joined the Army at the outbreak of the war, he also served in New Guinea and in the invasion of Borneo in 1945. He was awarded the OBE in 1944 and was Mentioned in Despatches four times.

During the Korean War in 1951, he rejoined the Army and became deputy director-general of Army Health Services. In 1955 he was appointed director-general of Army Medical Services and promoted to the rank of Major-General. He was an inspirational regimental medical officer who was not afraid to voice his opinions in the interest of his patients and was instrumental in assisting the establishment of the School of Army Health. A strong supporter of the RSL and Legacy, he served as a national trustee of the RSL from 1962 until his death. He was made a life member of the RSL and in 1990 was awarded the ANZAC peace prize for his contribution to world health and peace. In 1959 he was awarded the CBE for his services to the Army and in 1955 was appointed honorary physician to the Queen.

After World War II, he became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and in 1948 became medical superintendent of the Melbourne Women’s Hospital. There he became concerned about the high death rate of premature babies. Many of those deaths were caused by the babies becoming too cold immediately after birth. With the hospital engineer, he designed and built the first portable humidicrib, which kept the new-born warm and supplied oxygen if needed.

It was at the instigation of Dame Pattie Menzies that he left the Women’s Hospital to become director-general of the Commonwealth Health Department. In that role he was responsible for the building of the then named Woden Valley Hospital and entered into an agreement with the Little Company of Mary for the construction of the Calvary Hospital. So he was the father of the ACT public hospital system.

In 1977 he was appointed to the council of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which he helped to develop further and remained on the board until 1985. He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1980, as well as gathering many other awards and honours.

He remained passionate about the ethics of medicine all his life, as he was about what would advance the good in humanity. He had eye for individual patients in his care, coupled with a vision for what would benefit the whole population. Hugely committed to his family, he was proud of their achievements, great or small.

Sir William’s wife, predeceased him in November 2002. He is survived by four sons – Bill, Richard, Andrew and Michael, one daughter, Kathryn, and their families.

Sir William Refshauge, born 3 April 1913; died 27 May 2009.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Refshauge, Sir William Dudley (1913–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

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