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John William Springthorpe (1855–1933)

by Anne Sanders

from C. Chapman (ed), Inner Worlds: Portraits & Psychology, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Born in 1855 in England, John William Springthorpe emigrated with his family to Balmain in Sydney when he was an infant. Educated first at Fort Street Model School, he left as dux of the school in 1869 to attend Sydney Grammar School. In 1872, the family moved to Melbourne and he entered Wesley College in Melbourne as a Walter Powell Scholar, where he graduated the following year as 'the best scholar proceeding to University'. Springthorpe maintained an outstanding record at the University of Melbourne, winning several exhibitions and graduating with distinctions, with a BA in 1875 followed by an MA 1878 and his Bachelors of Medicine and Surgery in 1879.

Springthorpe’s first appointment was as Resident Medical Officer at Beechworth Lunatic Asylum, Victoria until funding shortages in the Lunatic Department forced him to resign. From 1881 to 1883, he continued his studies in England, becoming the first Australian graduate to be admitted to membership of the Royal College of Physicians. On returning to Australia he completed his MD in 1884 at the University of Melbourne and was appointed the university’s first lecturer in therapeutics, dietetics and hygiene (a position he would occupy for the next 30 years), and an in-patient physician at the Melbourne Hospital in 1887. In 1914 he published Therapeutics, Dietetics and Hygiene: An Australian textbook in two volumes with a chapter on psychotherapy.

Short in stature, energetic and enthusiastic, 'Springy' was instrumental in supporting the professional training and registration of a number of medical disciplines, including the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses Association and the Masseurs Registration Board (predecessor to physiotherapy), as well as dentistry—becoming the inaugural Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Melbourne in 1924. He took a leading role in establishing the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association, was actively involved in the regular gatherings of the Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia (renamed Australasian Medical Congress in 1905) and was editor of the Australasian Medical Gazette for many years. He championed reforms in the treatment of the insane and the use of psychological therapies. He was also instrumental in establishing the Talbot Colony for Epileptics in 1907, in Clayton and later in the setting up of the Tweddle Hospital for Babies and Mothercraft nursing.

Springthorpe had encountered Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice in papers by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Havelock Ellis delivered at the Australasian Medical Congress in Sydney in 1911. However the Australasian Medical Gazette, of which he was editor at the time, maintained that there was 'a closer association of physical states with mental disturbances' than was acknowledged by Freudian practitioners. In 1919, in recognition of his experience dealing with cases of shell shock and neurasthenia during World War I—serving as senior physician at the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Egypt, and in France and England—Springthorpe was asked to represent Australia at the Inter-Allied Conference on the After-Care of Disabled Men. Although sceptical of some aspects of Freud’s methodology, he had developed psychotherapeutic methods in his treatments of affected soldiers; and he continued to treat returned veterans at the Repatriation Department, Melbourne, throughout the rest of his career.

He also continued to publish articles in the Medical Journal of Australia on war neuroses and psychology. In one such article published in 1919 Springthorpe passionately advocated that: 'no teaching hospital can leave psychology, any more than physiology, out of the curriculum, no teaching hospital can remain without its psychological department, and no up-to-date medical practitioner can leave this priceless talent buried in the dust of ignorance and fight his battle against disease with this, his right arm, tied behind his back'.

John William Springthorpe married Annie Constance Inglis in 1887. She was a cousin of the à Beckett family, related to the artistic Boyd family. Annie and John had four children before her premature death during childbirth in 1897—the baby, Guy, survived and would become one of Melbourne’s leading psychiatrists.

Springthorpe began collecting art in the 1880s. He was one of a group of patrons (including Dr Felix Myer, Professor Baldwin Spencer, Professor G. W. Marshall Hall and Theodore Fink) who supported Melbourne’s nascent avant-garde artists. He commissioned portraits of himself from Tom Roberts in 1886 and John Longstaff in 1895 and 1909; and commissioned a portrait of his wife following their marriage in 1887 from Tom Roberts. He also purchased works by Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder from The 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition held in Melbourne in 1889.

Following the death of his beloved Annie, Springthorpe commissioned a monument to her, drawing on the expertise of his artist friends, Longstaff and Bertram Mackennal, and the architect Harold Desbrowe Annear. Known as the Springthorpe Memorial, it was completed in 1901 at Boroondara cemetery, Kew.

In 1909 Springthorpe purchased 'Joyous Gard', a magnificent garden estate in Murrumbeena, then on the outskirts of Melbourne. He was a family confidante and physician of the Boyd family who, from 1913, lived nearby at 'Open Country'. As a committed public intellectual Springthorpe championed reforms of the Lunacy Act, epilepsy treatment and child welfare; and, until his death in 1933, he continued to advocate for greater professional acceptance of the use of psychological treatment programs in the repatriation of returned soldiers.

He died after a short illness in 1933, and was survived by his second wife, Daisy (née Johnstone) and his children from his first marriage; two sons, Lance and Guy and a daughter, Enid.

Other Obituaries for John William Springthorpe

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Springthorpe, John William (1855–1933)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 August, 1855
Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England


22 April, 1933 (aged 77)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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