Lives of the fellows

Alexander John Maum Sinclair

b.6 November 1908 d.7 October 1989
ED(1965) OBE(1967) MB BS Melb(1932) MD(1935) MRCP(1939) MRACP(1946)FRACP(1955) FRCP(1963)

At the height of his professional career in the 1950s Alex Sinclair was the doyen of private psychiatrists in Australia. He was an outstanding clinical teacher, had an honorary appointment at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and a large private practice. He was chairman of the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association and secretary of the Australian Association of Psychiatrists. He was a dapper, lean man, always well dressed with a club or Army tie and a miniature rose in his buttonhole.

Alex was born in Perth, Western Australia, but his family moved to Victoria. He went to Geelong College where he was dux of the school and rowed in their eight. He graduated with honours at Melbourne University and worked at the Alfred Hospital and the Women’s Hospital. He also spent a year with the Flying Doctor Service in Queensland. He then travelled overseas and studied at both the National Hospital and Maudsley Hospital. William Sargant recounts in his autobiography The unquiet mind, London, Heinemann, 1967: ‘I have always unblushingly resorted to every device or trick that would help by-pass heartless medical authoritarianism. When, therefore, this one of Professor Mapother’s deputies took a vacation, I approached a visiting colleague from Australia who was due for only a few more weeks at the Maudsley. I pleaded with him: " Dr Sinclair, I have at last been given permission from another senior physician to treat this depressive patient with cardiazol. Would you give it before you go back to Australia? If I do so myself I’ll have to face the music when the other doctor returns". Dr Sinclair, now a leading psychiatrist and until recently senior physician in the department of psychological medicine at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, nobly agreed. He gave the patient five cardiazol convulsions and the recovery was immediate; the factory catastrophe passed into oblivion and he started to plan for the future. He stayed well and served throughout World War II as an officer and without relapse, and sent me a Christmas card every year as a grateful reminder. And we were thereafter allowed to go on using the treatment in depressive illness.’

Alex returned to general practice in Melbourne, and then joined the Army Medical Corps and served in Egypt, North Africa and New Guinea. While medical officer at Tobruk he cared for the casualties with war neuroses; this treatment of neurotic disorders became a life-long interest. After the war he continued as a consultant to the Australian Army and, in particular, with their psychological assessment.

In 1946 he was appointed honorary psychiatrist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and worked there until his retirement in 1965. At the hospital there was an inpatient ward and outpatient and liaison services. Many psychiatric trainees worked with him at this time and, in particular, were influenced by his interviewing skills (he was able to bring out the patient’s personality characteristics and habits in a very clear way and always made a masterly summary of their problems) and his insistence on psychiatry’s links with general medicine.

He was awarded a Carnegie travelling fellowship in 1948 and worked with John Romano in Rochester, USA. He was also influenced by the work of Harry Stack Sullivan.

In 1957 Alex Sinclair was invited by the Australian Government to plan a psychiatric service for Papua New Guinea and, after a three month survey, he wrote a report on the mental health needs of the indigenous people. Over the next five years he helped to establish some psychiatric facilities in that country.

Alex was often an expert witness at major criminal trials and compensation case assessments. He was highly regarded by the judiciary and was an active member of the Medico-Legal Society of Victoria. He was a prominent member of the Melbourne Club at which (it is said) all the important decisions in Australia were made at that time.

For many years he was an examiner for the Australian College of Psychiatrists, (previously the Australian Association of Psychiatrists) in postgraduate psychiatry, and was its president in 1953.

In 1937, Alex married Dorothy, a fellow doctor and the daughter of Sir Herbert Gepp. There were three children of the marriage.

Alex Sinclair was, without doubt, a most influential figure in the development of Australian psychiatry after the second world war. In the early 1980s he suffered a stroke but returned to private practice, perhaps inadvisably, and continued seeing patients until his death.

B Davies

(Volume IX, page 472)

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