'An ideal medical officer'

William Wilson Ingram

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

The Library is fortunate to hold a unique artefact from the golden days of last century's Antarctic explorations, donated to the College by its original owner, William (Bill) Ingram. It is known in the Library as simply, the 'Ingram box' or officially, the B.A.N.Z. Antarctic Research Expedition case.

William Wilson Ingram (1888-1982) was a Foundation Fellow of the RACP who was a medical officer on two British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE), led by Sir Douglas Mawson on the ship 'Discovery'. BANZARE was both a geopolitical and scientific expedition in which Mawson made proclamations of British sovereignty on the agreement that the territory would later be handed over to Australia. As well as acting as medical officer, Ingram undertook scientific work. Mawson described him thus:

In Dr Ingram, the Expedition was most favourable for there could have been no more ideal medical officer for such an undertaking, where scientific research is linked with hazard, and demands of physical endurance and a full measure of camaraderie.

The importance of Ingram's competence and personality were understood by Mawson as vital to the expedition's success given the unsuitability of the surgeon Whetter on the 'Aurora' Antarctic expedition of 1912.

Ingram was born in Craigellachie, 'one of the Lord's anointed, in other words a Scot' and studied medicine in Aberdeen and London. He came to Sydney while travelling in 1919 and stayed, soon being appointed to lecture at the physiology department of Sydney University and later to positions at Royal North Shore Hospital.

In the summers of 1929-30 and 1930-31, he travelled to Antarctica with two BANZARE expeditions where he undertook medical duties as well as scientific research:

'The health of the party has been remarkably good throughout the expedition, allowing Dr. Ingram more time for bacteriology and other work, in which he assisted wholeheartedly. In fact, he has been one of the most helpful members of the expedition.' On Macquarie Island, alongside assistant biologist Fletcher, Ingram 'disappeared into the mists of the interior highland to collect life from the lakes and alpine plants from higher levels.' (Mawson)

In a lecture given on his return, Ingram declared the Antarctic as the 'healthiest climate in the world' and advocated for the Antarctic to become a future health resort: 'It is a most invigorating place for people with weak chests'.

According to this article 'the theory that there are no germs in the polar regions was exploded by Dr. Ingram who declared that the whalers who received cuts on the hands suffered just as much from septic poisoning as if they had been in the tropics.'

What was carried in Dr. Ingram's BANZARE box? It was supplied and packed by Burroughs Wellcome (who also supplied a No. 250 'Tabloid' Medicine chest and a 'special sledging [sic] outfit') and mostly consisted of pain relief and analgesics such as Chloroform and Morphine, as well as Borofax and Bicarb soda.

What's in the BANZARE box now? Today the box contains a potpourri of Ingram's working life: certificates, testimonials, records of his war service, photographs, newspaper cuttings and various memorabilia from his time in the Antarctic, including the Bacteriological log of the Discovery. On the clinical side there are clinical notes and notebooks, lectures, diabetic diets, and some journal reprints. In addition, there are letters from former Prime Minister William Hughes, one providing a letter of introduction to Lord Novar, the former Governor General (then resident again in London) for when Ingram undertook a year's postgraduate study in London. As a direct result of this study, Ingram returned to Australia and set up the first diabetic clinic at Royal North Shore Hospital in 1928. He lectured extensively and wrote the first textbook on diabetes and its management in Australia.

His most significant clinical achievements were at Royal North Shore Hospital, where, in addition to establishing the first clinic for the treatment of diabetes, he set up the Kolling Institute of Medical Research, the Hospital Library and was a leader in both undergraduate and postgraduate medical education.

Watch Hon. Associate Professor Catherine Storey discuss the career of William Wilson Ingram and the history of insulin in Australia in this online exhibition