The Association of Physicians of Australasia

Precursor organisation to the RACP

Ninety-one years ago this month a notice appeared in the Medical Journal of Australia announcing the formation of “The Association of Physicians of Australasia (including New Zealand)”. The announcement followed the Association's first meeting in Melbourne on 21st June 1930.

It's stated aim was simple:

"the advancement of Internal Medicine and the promotion of friendship among Physicians".
The Association was initially limited to 75 ordinary members and Melbourne physician Richard Stawell was elected Chairman.

It is particularly interesting that the stated aim of the Association included ‘the promotion of friendship among physicians’. Prior to 1930 physicians assembled together with all other doctors at the Australian Medical Congress and prior to the that, the Intercolonial Medical Congress. The RACP’s first President, Sir Charles Blackburn, regarded the Association of Physicians as an important influence in breaking down the parochial attitudes in the different states and in reducing the traditional Melbourne-Sydney rivalry.

Ordinary members of the Association of Physicians were to be ‘men of distinction in medicine and the allied sciences’. Records of the Association refer only to men; there were no women included in the membership. By 1936 there were 67 members with the vast majority from Melbourne (33) and Sydney (25) unsurprisingly, given the time and vast distances required to travel to join meetings.

In spite of adoption of the term Australasia, New Zealand Physicians were Associate Members, limited to ten in number. New Zealand was not represented on the Council and received almost no mention in Council minutes. Not surprisingly a serious move to set up an Association of Physicians of New Zealand presumably reflected some dissatisfaction with the Association of Physicians of Australasia. However, this separatist move was abandoned when news of the proposed College was received in New Zealand in 1937.

"The time is now now ripe"

The formation of the College was discussed as early as 1931. When the Council met on 3 May 1931, Professor C.G. Lambie presented on the advisability of establishing a College of Physicians. He proposed that such a College should be an examining and executive body of senior physicians, lecturers and professors and a high standard should be established for admission to Fellowship. His suggested aims of the College were: (i) to enhance the prestige of the profession, (ii) to stimulate interest in medical education and research, (iii) to set a standard of professional ethical conduct.

However, it wasn’t until 1936 that it was "now ripe” for the College’s formation to take place. The first female President of the RACP, Priscilla Kincaid Smith speculated in her Golden Jubilee address that “it is difficult to assess whether physicians were merely displaying traditional conservatism in taking so long to establish a College or whether the powerful figures of the time were jockeying for position, waiting for an opportune moment to declare that the Association was to become a College when the time was right and appropriate for a College to be in Sydney with a President from that city or alternatively in Melbourne with a President from that city. Certainly, the flavour of some of the early reports suggests that these medical-political manoeuvres contributed to the late establishment of our College”.

It finally came to pass in 1938, eleven years after the Surgeons had established their College in Spring St. Melbourne.