Welsh, David Arthur

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Professor David Arthur Welsh

Foundation Professor of Pathology (1902-1935)

Dean of the Faculty of Medicine (1926-29)


David Arthur Welsh was born in Forfarshire, Scotland on November 19, 1865. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh three times with first-class honours. Welsh was awarded the Drummond scholarship in 1887 and the Murchison scholarship in 1893; in 1897 he took a gold medal for his doctoral thesis on the function and structure of a parathyroid.[1] He worked firstly in Edinburgh at the Royal Infirmary as a resident physician, then at the Morningside Asylum. At Edinburgh University he worked as a junior assistant to Dr Robert Muir, and married Muir's sister Elizabeth in 1899.[1] At the time, Muir was the original author of the text used in the Pathology course at the University of Sydney Medical School.

In December 1901, Welsh was appointed Foundation Professor of Pathology and began at the Faculty of Medicine in February 1902. The Senate Report for 1903 records that 'the teaching accommodation and appliances for the Lectureship in Pathology have been found inadequate for the new Professorship.' Welsh himself used more vivid terms to describe the facilities. In an article in the Sydney University Medical Journal, he wrote 'the provision [for the work of the first Chair of Pathology] was appalling. My heart sank when I was introduced to it with all solemnity.' He went on to say 'It took a long time and much persuasion to get the Department gradually extended…the Senate had been told the usual 'fairy tale' that the appointment of a Professor would not entail more expense beyond his salary, because ample provision (save the mark!) had been made for his work.'

At the time of Welsh's appointment, the Pathology Department consisted of three small rooms — the Professor's retiring room, the preparation room and a practical class room. The Department had a share in a lecture theatre, one Demonstrator and one untrained Attendant. The latter was paid two guineas a week, and was described by Welsh as being worth the money for his acquired immunity to alcohol and his skill in dancing the Highland Fling, but not worth 'saxpence' for his other qualifications. He was the forerunner of a long line of professional and technical officers in the Department.

The few openings in Pathology during Welsh's time, and the poor salaries which the University was prepared to pay for Demonstrators, made it impossible for him to retain medical graduates on his staff, except on a part-time basis. From 1902-1909 he was assisted in his University duties by one Demonstrator, but from 1910 a part-time Lecturer and a Chief Demonstrator were supported by other Demonstrators. The undergraduate course in Pathology taught by Welsh, included bacteriology, immunology, protozoology, helminthology and haematology. The latter was his particular pride, and he claimed that the Pathology Department at Sydney University excelled those in all other Universities in its haematology practical work for students. The University Department was also responsible for postgraduate teaching in a variety of courses and undergraduate teaching in Veterinary Science and Dentistry.

Welsh complained that he and his colleagues were forced to sacrifice their research work in order to make a success of their teaching. However, his work in many fields brought distinction to himself and the University. His interests included immunity, snake poisoning, hydatid disease and tuberculosis, cancer, diseases of the blood and the parathyroid glands.

In 1911 the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh appointed him a fellow.[1]

Welsh appears to have been well-respected by his pupils. According to the medical students writing in the University of Sydney Senior Year Book of 1922, 'Professor Welsh's department is the best organised and most efficient section of the Medical School, and we look back with admiration and gratitude to genial little Taffy and his 'Here gentlemen, we have a BEAUTIFUL specimen of a suppurating hydatid cyst;' he gave us a square deal.'[1]

In addition to his University responsibilities, Welsh did the pathological work for Prince Alfred Hospital, to quote his own words again 'in one very grubby post-mortem room and two other rooms.' He was assisted in the role as Hospital Pathologist by a trained Attendant and a Resident Pathologist who was often called away to other hospital duties. He remained the Honorary Pathologist to the Hospital until 1925; after this time he became Honorary Consultant Pathologist. Between 1925 and 1929 he was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine.

On his retirement in 1935, when Senate appointed him Professor Emeritus, it stated in the resolution adopted on the occasion that the high standard that the Medical School had attained was in no small measure due to the reputation of Professor Welsh.

Welsh left a heritage of excellence in teaching and research which has served the Pathology Department well over the years. He published extensive papers on immunological reactions with Professor Henry Chapman.[1] His research continued to be published in medical journals in Scotland and Australia.[1]

Welsh also worked at the radium institute at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital with Dr Kenny, Dr Amphlett and his son Arthur, researching radiation and squamous cancer.[1] The Department has a tangible reminder of its foundation Professor, for in 1944 he developed a squamous cell carcinoma on the sole of his foot as a result of radiotherapy he had had for hyperhidrosis. His amputated foot is preserved and displayed in the Pathology Museum not far from his portrait which hangs in the corridor outside. A collection of ten academic medals[1] earned by Welsh at Arbroath High School in Scotland and the Faculties of Arts and Medicine in Edinburgh has also been preserved. Welsh died in Sydney in 1948, survived by his wife and son.

Dorsch, S. E. "Pathology" in "The Medical Sciences" in Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (1984) in Young, J. A., Sefton, A. J., Webb, N., Sydney University Press, Sydney, pp. 332-34.

Citation: Mellor, Lise and Witton, Vanessa (2008) Welsh, David Arthur. 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.