RNSH surgeon; original ‘ANZAC’; a victim of the Influenza pandemic 1919

DR John Basil St Vincent Welsh (Courtesy of the State Archives)

During the 1919 influenza pandemic, the Royal North Shore Hospital received 534 influenza patients between 28 March and 31 July; 74 of these patients died. Twenty of the nurses contracted influenza, but fortunately, all recovered. One medical practitioner, Dr St Vincent Welch (1881–1919) (DSO, MB ChM 1906), a veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme, tragically died of influenza at RNSH on 21 May 1919 (2).

Dr John St Vincent Welch graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney in 1906. After a period as superintendent at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, he commenced private practice in Neutral Bay with an appointment as Honorary Surgeon to the Royal North Shore Hospital.  The hospital was in its infancy, having established on the present site on Gore Hill in 1903.

With the announcement of Australia’s participation in the First World War, Welch was one of the first to enlist on 4th August 1914 in the 1st Field Ambulance, A.A.M.C., A.I.F. He left with the first contingent in October 1914, bound for Egypt. He (and his brother Herbert) participated in the ‘great landing’ on Gallipoli on the 25th April 1915.  One of his medical classmates recorded the event for later publication in the Sydney University Medical Journal.

Daily Telegraph, 9th September 1918.

Our final orders were that the Stretcher Bearer Captains, Welch, Warsell and Kay, with 108 men were to land at 1.00 am on Sunday 25th April and if the landing were successful the remainder of the unit was to join them on the following morning.  At 10.00 am., Captains Welch, Wersell and Kay with 108 stretcher bearers went ashore in a torpedo destroyer whilst the remainder of us watched with anxiety to see if they would land in safety, as the beach was under incessant shell fire, and the bodies of men killed at the first landing could be seen, with the aid of glasses.”  — Archie Aspinall (fellow Student at Sydney University), Sydney University Medical Journal, 1917, First Field Ambulance. A.A.M.C., A.I.F.

Welch was wounded on this first day, and following a further shrapnel injury, he was invalided to Malta in November 1915. He was soon back at the front, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, but this time in the battlefields of France and Belgium where he served at the Somme. Before his final repatriation, at an investiture held at Buckingham Palace on 17th February 1917, he received a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) as well as mention in Despatches (1).

On his return to Australia, he resumed his private practice and his position as Surgeon at R.N.S.H. During 1918, he delivered numerous ‘War picture lectures’ for the general public, with funds raised going towards the Royal North Shore Hospital. 

[£310 in 1918 represents approximately $30,000 today]

But in 1919, an influenza pandemic swept across the world, still recovering from the ravages of the World War.  The Royal North Shore Hospital of Sydney was also affected by the Influenza, receiving hundreds of patients. On the 21st April 1919, Dr John St Vincent Welch D.S.O., war hero, Honorary Surgeon and staunch supporter of R.N.S.H., died of the Influenza at the hospital, the only staff member to succumb.

Catherine E Storey O.A.M. MB BS MSc F.R.A.C.P., Honorary Archivist R.N.S.H. October 2020

  1. Australian War Memorial. 2020. “Australian War Memorial – Honors and Awards – John Basil St Vincent Welsh,” October. (See Link Australian War Memorial).
  2. “Medical School History: The 1919 Influenza Pandemic.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2020. https://www.sydney.edu.au/medicine-health/news-and-events/2019/10/22/medical-school-history.html.

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