Leslie Cowlishaw

First Librarian of the College

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on January 31, 2023

Although the College holds a leading collection of historical medical books and artefacts, the collection may have been even more impressive were it not for the early passing of its first Librarian, Leslie Cowlishaw. Cowlishaw was appointed to the position of Librarian in the same month he sat and passed the exam for Membership in September 1939. This was also the same month the College opened its doors at 145 Macquarie St, Sydney. Among the articles listed in the new College's by-laws, the objective "To acquire by purchase, donation or otherwise, a library of scientific works and to maintain and from time to time extend and improve such a library” was included.

The role of Librarian was an honorary one to which Cowlishaw was eminently suited. He had discovered a love for books early, and this extended particularly to medical history texts while on a tour of Europe with his family as a medical graduate in 1906, a time that the subject was not fashionable:

'At that time the subject was completely neglected. The great discoveries of the nineteenth century had thrown into the shade anything medical which had happened in the previous centuries'.

This circumstance allowed Cowlishaw to develop his own extensive collection of history of medicine titles which he pursued throughout his short life.

'I remember hunting through the old book shops of London and continental cities only to find my inquiries for books on the history of medicine received with surprise and assurance that there were not any.'

During the First World War Cowlishaw contracted scarlet fever and was evacuated to England where he met Sir William Osler. Sir William encouraged the `bibliographer from the bush' giving him a number of books. Cowlishaw recalled the meeting in an address.

Cowlishaw also had another connection with the College prior to becoming first Librarian - his grandfather, Thomas Cowlishaw had been the original stonemason who worked on 145 Macquarie St. Sydney for John Fairfax. The younger Cowlishaw would also put his stamp on the building by designing shelving for the Council room which he imagined would eventually house his own collection of books. His will stipulated that the College would have first right of refusal on his 2000-odd texts when offered for sale by his Trustees on his death. Unfortunately at the time of Cowlishaw's death in 1943, at the age of only 66, the young College could not afford to purchase the collection and the College of Surgeons in Melbourne snapped it up.

"In Leslie Cowlishaw, who died in December, 1943, the College lost a Member who was, what is to-day unfortunately rare, a scholar-physician. ...he had a splendid collection of old medical texts and incunabula. He served us as Honorary Librarian and Archivist from 1939 until his untimely death.

-Council Minutes of 1943