William McCrea, Colonial Surgeon

McCrea, William (1814–1899)

by David M. O’Sullivan
William McCrea (1814-1899), medical administrator and naval surgeon, was born on 14 October 1814 in County Tyrone, Ireland. His father died before William was 2 and at 13 he was apprenticed to his uncle, a medical practitioner in London. In 1830 McCrea began attending an extramural medical school in Soho and enrolled at St George’s Hospital (L.S.A., M.R.C.S., 1834; M.B., 1851). In 1835 he had joined the navy as assistant surgeon and served for sixteen years, mostly on the coasts of North America and North Africa. In 1851 he sailed in the Anna Maria for Van Diemen’s Land as surgeon in charge of 200 female convicts and arrived at Hobart Town in January 1852.
The gold rush was then producing great demands upon the administration to control health and maintain order in Victoria and McCrea was appointed assistant colonial surgeon. In charge of thirty imperial pensioners he was sent to the Forest Creek diggings as surgeon, coroner and magistrate. His naval training so suited him in this task that Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe petitioned for his retirement from the navy to stay on as colonial surgeon.
When Dr John Sullivan died in 1853 McCrea was appointed head of the Medical Department and as Victoria’s first chief health officer was chairman of the newly-established Central Board of Health. He was an excellent administrator, and with naval discipline was firm but fair with his staff. He held these appointments for twenty-five years and firmly founded Victoria’s health services. The Quarantine Department had been established in 1854 and next year the Vaccination Act was enacted. He was vitally concerned with the investigation and control of the epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, scarlet fever and diphtheria in Victoria. In Melbourne the establishment of the Yan Yean water supply, the application of sanitary reform and the opening of the Queen’s Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital were highlights of his term and reflect great credit on his administration. Among many duties he had charge of inmates in the Colonial Hospital, the Orphan Asylum and Lunatic Asylum and the Immigrants’ Home. He also served on the Police Superannuation Board and the committee of the Austin Hospital for Invalids. He resigned as chairman of the Central Board of Health in 1879. He had been chairman of the royal commission on noxious trades in 1870-71 and next year the origin of typhoid. He served on the commission on foot and mouth disease in 1872 and the sanitary condition of Melbourne in 1888-90. His Observations on Typhoid Fever was published in Melbourne in 1879.
Described as tall, wiry and well built, McCrea had an unmistakable north of Ireland accent. He died of hemiplegia and heart failure on 16 February 1899 at his home in Lennox Street, Richmond, and was buried in the Anglican section of the Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his wife Mary Jane, née Drew, whom he had married in 1846 at Milford, Wales, and by two daughters; a son had died in infancy.
Portraits are in the Archives of the Medical Society of Victoria and the Department of Mental Hygiene.
Select Bibliography
‘Health administration in Victoria 1834-1934’, Health Bulletin (Victoria), 1935
Museum Archives (Medical Society of Victoria, Parkville, Melbourne).
Citation details
David M. O’Sullivan, ‘McCrea, William (1814–1899)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccrea-william-4072/text6497, accessed 1 April 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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