James William Barrett, Sir - Biography

James William Barrett, Sir (1862-1945) KBE, CB, CMG, LLD (Manit.) MD, MS, Hon. LLD., FRCS (England), FRACS, CMZS, Vice-Chancellor 1931-1934, first Deputy Chancellor 1934-1935 and Chancellor 1935-1939.

James William Barrett was born 27 February 1862 in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne), the eldest of eight children to Catherine (née Edkins) and James Barrett, physician. Barrett was educated first at a private elementary school and later at Melbourne Grammar and Carlton College where he matriculated dux in 1876.


When Barrett entered the University of Melbourne in 1876 at the age of 15, he was one of 200 students, ten of whom were studying medicine. Barrett became the first Secretary of the Medical Students' Society (1880), completed a Bachelor of Medicine (1881), Surgery (1882) and served as a Resident Medical Officer at Melbourne Hospital where he became a strong advocate of antisepsis. Proceeding to King's College, London, Barrett continued his studies, gaining Membership to the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) (1884) and Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) (1887) as well as serving as a Demonstrator and Lecturer in Physiology at King's College.

Upon his return to Melbourne Barrett gained a Doctor of Medicine (1887) and Master of Surgery (1888) from the University of Melbourne and held the position of Demonstrator in Physiology and Histology in the University of Melbourne until 1897 when he was appointed an honorary Lecturer in the Physiology of the Special Senses - a position he held for some 40 years.

Surgeon and Oculist

Barrett held the position of Assistant Surgeon and later Surgeon at the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital (1893-1913), thereafter serving as Ophthalmologist at the Melbourne Hospital, as well as consultant Surgeon of the Marine Board of Victoria, Royal Australian Navy, the Repatriation Hospital and the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. In addition to his many university and hospital commitments Barrett also ran a private consultation practice in Collins Street, in rooms alongside his sister Dr Edith Barrett's practice.

Member of the University of Melbourne Council (1901-1939)

In 1901 he became a member of the University of Melbourne Council and was appointed joint Secretary of a Committee to advise on the re-organisation of the University of Melbourne in the areas of administration and education.

World War 1

During WW1 Barrett served as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Australian Imperial Forces (1914-1915) deployed to Egypt as a consultant Oculist and Aurist (and subsequently with the Royal Army Medical Corps, 1916-1919), Registrar of the 1st Australian General Hospital, Assistant Director Australian Medical Services in Egypt and additionally he acted as the chief executive officer of the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society. Barrett was awarded a Companion of (the Order of) St Michael and St George (C.M.G.) (1911); Order of the Nile, 3rd class, (1916); Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.) (1918); Companion of the Order of Bath (military division) (1918).


Upon returning to Australia in 1919 Barrett stood for and won the National Party (Toorak branch) State pre-selection, only to be defeated by Sir Stanley Argyle in the subsequent election for a seat in the Victorian Legislative Assembly.In 1931 Barrett succeeded Sir John Monash as the last non-salaried Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne (1931-1934); thereafter he was the first Deputy Chancellor (1934-1935) and then Chancellor (1935-1939) until his retirement.

Public Affairs

Having an indefatigable commitment to public affairs, Barrett was particularly interested in the economics and political dimensions of the British empire as well as Japanese affairs, public health, education, recreation, music and the creation and conservation of National Parks. He held numerous executive positions, some of which included:

Founding Member
  • Bush Nursing Association of Victoria. Founded in 1910, with his sister Dr Edith Barrett (both holding the office of Honorary Secretary)
  • The Marshall-Hall Orchestra (in association with others)
  • British Medical Association (1935-1936)
  • Royal Empire Society (Victorian Branch
  • Town Planning Association (Town and Country Planning Association)
  • Playgrounds Association
  • Decimal Association
  • Proportional Representation Society
  • Japan Society
  • Australian Association for Fighting VD (in association with Dr. Edith Barrett)
  • Royal Life Saving Society
  • Victorian Listeners' League
  • Magna Carta Association
  • Health Association of Australasia (Victorian branch) (Vice-President)
  • Ophthalmalogical Society of Australia (Inaugural President)
  • Australian branch of the British Red Cross (Honorary Secretary)
  • Australian Red Cross (Inaugural Secretary)
  • Lady Northcote Permanent Orchestra Fund
  • National Parks Committee
  • Committee Neglected Children's Depot (Victorian) Board of Management
  • Committee Returned Soldiers' Military Band
  • Historical Memorials Committee
  • Combined Empire Society
  • Melbourne University Council (1901-1939)
  • War Work Committee Y.M.C.A. Egypt (1917-1918)
  • Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire (Honorary)
  • Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne (Advisory Committee)
  • Advisory Committee Regarding Medical Inspection of Schools
  • Council of the Workers' Education Association (WEA)
  • Committee of Repatriation Department Concerning Education of Deceased Soldiers' Children
  • Council of the League of Nations

At the time of his death Barrett was still active in some 28 committees. His involvement and leadership of these groups was characterised by a practical and progressive outlook; however, his domineering style often made him unpopular. Despite this he was highly regarded for his selflessness, idealism, financial generosity and public spirit.

In his advocacy of these groups Barrett was a vigorous correspondent in the daily newspapers, as well as keeping up an extensive correspondence with influential members of the military, political, social and scientific circles both in Australia and overseas. Barrett was the author of The Twin Ideals: An Educated Commonwealth (1918), A Vision of the Possible: What the R.A.M.C. Might Become (1919), The War Work of the Y.M.C.A. in Egypt (1919) and co-authored with Percy Deane The Australian Army Medical Corps in Egypt (1918), as well as numerous medical articles.

James Barrett married Marian née Rennick in 1888 (d. 1939) and had five children: Cara, Keith Joy (d. 1917), Bertha, James Noel and Jeanette. James Barrett died at his home in Toorak on the 6 April 1945, survived by his second wife Monica Ernestine née Heinze (m.1940) and four of his five children.

    Dr. James William Barrett outside the Melbourne University Conservatorium after conferral of honorary degrees by the Vice Chancellor on Friday, 14 August, 1914. (detail)

    University of Melbourne Photograph Collection. OSBA/334