Archibald Watson was born on the 27th July, 1849 at Tarcutta, New South Wales, the eldest son of Sydney Grandison Watson, a Victorian pastoralist of Scots-Indian descent, and his wife Isabella (nee Robinson).
Educated in Sydney and at Scotch College, Melbourne, Archibald excelled in scripture and was a champion light-weight boxer.
Acting as his father’s agent, he became involved in blackbirding (the importing of indentured labour) aboard ‘The Carl’ on her 1871-72 venture in the Solomon Islands. On returning to Levuka, Watson was arrested and charged with piracy but was later discharged from his bail on entering into his own recognizance.
The captain Joseph Armstrong was later sentenced to death for murder and atrocities committed during her previous voyage.
In 1873 Archie travelled to England and Germany where he studied medicine at the Georg-August Universität of Göttingen (M.D., 1878) and the Université de Paris (M.D., 1880).
In England he obtained the licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, London, and became a member and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He also studied surgery under Joseph Lister at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.
Watson was appointed Elder Professor of Anatomy at the University of Adelaide in 1885, and served as lecturer in pathological anatomy from 1887 to 1903 and lecturer in operative surgery from 1887 to 1919.
He was an inspiring teacher, but also prone to autocratic and at times idiosyncratic behaviour. In 1895 he became involved in the controversial dispute involving Royal Adelaide Hospital staff. Watson kept daily records of his patients and operations he witnessed, including observations made in the United States, China, South America, Japan, Russia and New Zealand, and during service with the Natal Field Force in the South African (Boer) War and the first World War in Egypt and Greece.
His notebooks have been preserved in the archives of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Melbourne. An erratic and eccentric genius, Watson lived an unconventional life and travelled widely. Watson retired in 1919 and lived his last years on Thursday Island, studying the Aborigines and collecting marine specimens. He passed away on the 30th July, 1940 and is buried on Thursday Island.
Adapted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry by Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance, and The Wakefield companion to South Australian history
Archibald Watsons story became the topic of a book called “Painting the Islands Vermilion: Archibald Watson and the brig. Carl” Published in 1999 by researcher and historical writer, Jennifer M. T. Carter of Burra in South Australia. The book is a straightforward account of the intriguing career of an extraordinary Australian doctor, Archibald Watson, the first Elder Professor of Anatomy at the University of Adelaide (1885–1920), who was involved in piracy and “blackbirding” or slave-trading in the 1800s.
A graduate of Aberdeen University in Scotland, Jennifer M.T. Carter (1943- )is an independent researcher and writer. Her historical works include the book on Archie plus, “Eyes to the Future: Sketches of Australia and her neighbours in the 1870s”, and “Burra 1845-1851: A Directory of Early Folk”. Carter also writes historical novels under the pseudonym of Mary Talbot Cross.
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