Lee, Douglas Harry Kedgwin

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MB 1929 BS 1930 DTM 1933 MD 1940 BSc 1925 (UQ) MSc 1927 (UQ)

When Douglas Lee enrolled in the Graduate Diploma of Tropical Medicine, he had already completed three degrees: two in science and one in medicine. His biography illustrates that, like Sir Clive Fitts, he was deeply committed to extending the boundaries of his own knowledge and educating others.

Douglas Lee was born in Bristol in 1905. At the age of 10, he moved to Mackay, Queensland with his family. in 1915 and was admitted to. He enrolled in Science at the University of Queensland and graduated BSc with honours in 1925 and MSc in 1927. According to history notes of the University of Queensland, Lee’s scientific interests determined the “orientation and philosophy” of his later career, particularly his “interest and continuing search for basic principles of thermal physiology and environmental health”.[1] Moreover, the move from England to the tropics of Queensland is said to have stimulated his lifelong interest in physiological problems when people live and work in hot and humid climates.

He commenced his study of medicine at the University of Sydney in 1925[1], graduating MBBS with honours in 1930. When the School of Tropical Medicine opened that same year, Lee was enrolled, but did not graduate until 1933. However, at this time he was already working for the Commonwealth Department of Health and remained with the Department until 1933. When he did graduate, he returned to England to engage in post-graduate research on the effects of high temperature and humidity on man at University College in London.

In 1935, at the age of only 30, he became Professor of Physiology at King Edward College of Medicine in Singapore. One year later, he became Foundation Professor of Physiology at the University of Queensland. According to their historical notes:

He set up new courses, devised laboratory experiments and developed his own exposition of physiological principles. For medical students basic physiology served as an introduction to clinical seminars, a new approach at the time… [Later] a hot room to produce tropical conditions was constructed with support from NHMRC and CSIRO. Much war-time research took place there and in the field in North Queensland and Papua New Guinea.[1]

By 1938, he was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Concurrently, from 1936 to 1941 he was a volunteer with the Australian Army Medical Corps and between 1941 and 1948 was called up intermittently for war service. In 1948 he left Australia for the United States and had a highly distinguished career there for 42 years. During that time, he held academic and high-level government research posts such as Chief of Occupational Health for the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare and Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Lee then attempted to retire but after 16 years, returned to Australia in 1990 and recommenced teaching at the University of Queensland’s School of Biomedical Sciences. Henry Malcolm Whyte describes how Lee reacquainted himself with the department he had left 54 years ago:

First, he attended some of the lectures and practical classes to up-grade his knowledge of the subject and to get acquainted with the modern style and clientele… [1]

Reportedly, he quickly returned to his trademark style of delivering highly entertaining and informative lectures. In particular, aged 90 himself, he brought his medical knowledge and long experience of life together in a series of seminar lectures on “the doleful topic of ageing”. Whyte’s account of these lectures reveals Professor Lee’s typical generosity, humour and flair as an educator:

The class then moves into an interactive exercise with Dougie stating: “I am Exhibit A. I want you to use this exhibit. What is there about me that speaks of old age?”… The tension in this situation – an elderly person discussing ageing and demonstrating such signs as a little deafness, distractibility and a reduction in coordination – provides the kind of high drama to which medical students react enthusiastically. Add to the list – graying and some loss of hair; wrinkled, then, spotted, inelastic skin; difficulty in separating pages and picking up pins; spectacles and a history of cataracts; obvious wariness of back-bending when stooping; and some unsteadiness in walking and wheeling, feet well apart – and students develop a typical picture of elderliness and Dougie is provided with subject matter aplenty for proceeding from what is observable and familiar to what is unfamiliar, but knowable, about the underlying physiological changes in ageing.[1]

Professor Lee died in 2005, having celebrated his 100th birthday.

Alumni Record

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Lee, Douglas Harry Kedgwin. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.