Mills, Arthur Edward

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Professor Arthur Edward Mills

Demonstrator in Anatomy (1890, 1891, 1897–1898)

Demonstrator in Physiology (1891)

Lecturer in the Diseases of Children (1901–1910)

Lecturer in the Principles and Practice of Medicine (1910–1919)

Professor of the Principles and Practice of Medicine (1920–1930)

Dean of the Faculty of Medicine (1920–1925)

Fellow of Senate (1920–1925, 1929–1939)

Deputy Chancellor (1936–1938)


Arthur Edward Mills was born on 13 February 1865, at Mudgee, the son of a local official who acted as mining agent in the district during the Mudgee-Gulgong gold rush. During his childhood he fell under the influence of the local school master, Robert Hinder, an older brother of Henry Vincent Critchley Hinder. Robert Hinder influenced Mills to become a school teacher and he was duly licensed at the age of sixteen to teach in small schools. He taught first in Beryl and then in Wyaldra, but he was unhappy as a school teacher — it is said because he found it difficult to impose adequate discipline. Consequently he resigned his position in January 1883. Nevertheless the desire to succeed as a teacher seems to have persisted. Robert Hinder, later to become well known as the Headmaster of Maitland High School, North Sydney Boys' High School and Sydney Boys' High School, married Mills's only sister and moved to Sydney, encouraging Mills to visit him there. Mills, who in the meantime had demonstrated his academic talent and scholarly temperament by teaching himself Greek, came to Sydney and, inspired by the example of Hinder's brother, matriculated to the University and enrolled in Medicine. He completed the common first year in 1884, enrolled in Medicine II in 1885 and graduated in minimum time with Second-Class Honours in 1889. His undergraduate career was extremely good and he achieved honours in ten subjects, classics, mathematics, chemistry, botany, anatomy, physiology, pathology, medicine, surgery and midwifery.

In 1889 he was one of the first four Sydney graduates to be appointed to the resident staff of Prince Alfred Hospital where he remained for about eighteen months. He had already been strongly influenced by James Thomas Wilson, the anatomist, and when Wilson became Professor of Anatomy in 1890, Mills accepted an appointment for twelve months as Demonstrator in Anatomy, and for one term (Lent Term, 1891) as Demonstrator in Physiology, thus becoming the first Sydney graduate to be appointed to the staff of the Medical School. He married Ida Cecilia Archibald in late 1890 and, being quite impoverished, was obliged to seek a living in private practice. He worked first at Picton (1892–1893) and then for fourteen years (1894–1909) at Strathfield, before setting up as a consultant physician in Macquarie Street, Sydney, in 1910. During this period he resumed his connections with the University by acting as an Examiner in Anatomy (from 1894) and served as a Demonstrator once more in 1897–1898.

In 1899 he became an Honorary Assistant Physician at the Prince Alfred Hospital and in 1901 became the University Lecturer in Diseases of Children, the aspect of clinical medicine of greatest interest to him. He was the honorary medical officer of the Infants' Home in Ashfield for thirty-five years, and greatly lowered infant mortality by implementing a Truby King style feeding schedule to counter gastro-enteritis.[1]

In 1910 he succeeded Dr William Camac Wilkinson as University Lecturer in the Principles and Practice of Medicine, a not altogether popular appointment with the students who initially disliked his lecturing style.

During World War One Mills was appointed a major in the Australian Imperial Force in 1915, working in London at the administrative headquarters, and in Harefield at the No.1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital.[1]

In 1920 he was appointed Professor of the Principles and Practices of Medicine, the first clinical appointment at professorial level made by the University. The conditions of appointment permitted him to retain his Hospital posts and his consultant practice but the salary, the same as that of other University Professors, made it possible for him to spend a great deal of his time in teaching. Late in the same year, when Wilson, who had succeeded Professor Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart as Dean, resigned to go to Cambridge, Mills succeeded him as Dean.

As a teacher, Mills was unique. He achieved a notable reputation both for his lectures and for his bedside teaching. 'Artie' became very well-liked and carried a blackboard and chalk with him about the wards. The Senior Year Book for 1922 records a man 'unconventional and original, he stands out upon the floor of the lecture room as if he were an actor before his audience. Illustrating his 'meditations upon the cause of things' by gesture and clever mimicry, by quaint humour, wholesale quotations and original phrases, he drives home his points with inimitable emphasis. The lesson of observation and enquiry is what he aims above all else to teach us…'[1] However, Mills's style of teaching, too, was seen as greatly different from his predecessor's. He is reported in the Senior Year Book for 1924 as constantly asking the students 'why', as constantly questioning the accepted methods of treatment or approach to a particular problem or disease, and as trying to look behind the symptoms in order to establish their cause. In his early days of teaching, this had led to some acrimony between himself and students who had been used to coherent, easily encompassed expositions of causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Mills's system of working backwards from the symptoms to the cause, or possible causes, was in those early days ahead of its time; by 1924 it would appear to have become an acceptable, even if still at times a rather intimidating approach.

In personality, too, Mills appears to have been far removed from Anderson Stuart. He had a rather more volatile character, with a sense of humour and a keen wit, but with the ability to be strict and even caustic toward students who failed to supply adequate answers to his many questions. Students recorded that '…Professor Mills believes that it is the duty of the lecturer to be interesting, and not the duty of the audience to be interested. The measure of his success is the number of people who turn up at the unholy hour of half-past eight in the morning, and, by the experience of those who turn up on the stroke of time to his optional lectures at RPAH (Royal Prince Alfred Hospital), and who have difficulty in finding a seat (those who arrive late have to sit on the floor). Arty's way of keeping order is as original as his teaching method. The 'gentlemen in the back row' are not asked to leave the room, but the turbulent spirits are put to shame by having aspersions cast on the power of their higher nervous centres. The success of this plan makes one imagine what a success Arty would be as a political speaker. Surely the most experienced and irreconcilable heckler would be reduced to stupefied silence on hearing himself described as a 'poor thalamic individual entirely devoid of cortical control. '[1]

In terms of leadership and administration, it is said that Mills 'was a strong dean, just and sympathetic in his dealings with the staff, but intolerant of inefficiency and never hesitant to expose it.'[1] He remained Dean until 1925 and also became, ex officio, a Fellow of Senate. Holding all these positions as well as being a Senior Physician at Prince Alfred Hospital, he became a man of considerable power and influence in matters concerning the Medical School. His manner of wielding this power appears to have been very different from that of Anderson Stuart. Contemporary accounts show him to have been held in affection rather than awe and he seems to have swayed others as much by reasoned argument as by force of personality or will. Mills's contemporary Dr Robert Scot Skirving was perhaps alluding to this influence in his memoirs, when he described Mills as '…rather a medical larrikin and wire-puller.'[1]

Mills was appointed chief medical officer for the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Co. Ltd. in 1926, which was offered to him by Sir John Garvan.[1] Even when Mills ceased to be Dean of the Faculty in 1925, he remained powerful since he returned to the Senate in 1929 as a Fellow elected by Convocation and became Deputy Chancellor in 1935. In these capacities he could and did dominate the Conjoint Board responsible for making Prince Alfred Hospital staff appointments. After serving a term of two years as Deputy Chancellor, he had effective control of all Faculty appointments as well.

In 1929 his wife died and Mills married the sister of Sir John Garvan, Helena Mary in 1932.[1]

In 1938 Mills was appointed a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.[1]

Mills died suddenly of coronary occlusion in Martin Place on April 10, 1940.[1] He was a worthy, and rather more lovable successor to Anderson Stuart as the de facto ruler of the Faculty. There seems little doubt that he transformed the teaching of clinical medicine at the Medical School and helped to promote the cause of basic sciences. An oil portrait of him by William Rowell hangs in the Great Hall, a reminder of his services to the University, and a cartoon by (Sir) Lionel Lindsay of Mills as Saint Luke, emphasizes his interest in paediatrics and also tobacco.

His obituary by (Sir) Charles Macdonald in The Medical Journal of Australia is unusually full, and gives us a clear picture of him as a physician, medical administrator, and teacher. Mills's name is commemorated in the Faculty by a prize for the student who obtains first place in the honours list at graduation. The prize was established by Mills's widow in 1940 to commemorate her late husband's name.

The Medical Journal of Australia (June 22, 1940) No. 1, pp. 878-883.

Young, J. A. in "Second Act: The Medical School 1882-1889" in Young, J., Sefton, A., Webb, N., (1984), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, Sydney University Press, Sydney, pp.155-158.

Webb, N., and J. A. Young in "The Medical School in the 1920s" in Young, J., Sefton, A., Webb, N., (1984), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, Sydney University Press, Sydney, pp.199- 217.

Citation: Mellor, Lise and Witton, Vanessa (2008) Mills, Arthur Edward. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.