Sir Joseph Cooke Verco

This  Biography circa 1988, author is unknown.  This is one of many biographies on Sir Verco, artefacts, research and biography copies available from the CALHN Health Museum archives.

Joseph Cooke VERCO (1854-1933), physician and conchologist, was born at Fullarton, South Australia on 1 August 1851. He was the fifth son and sixth child of James Crabb Verco (1814-1891), builder, and his wife Ann Cooke (1811-1881). Both parents were of Cornish origin, married in Devonshire, arriving in South Australia in 1840. Educated at John Lorenzo Young’s private academy, Adelaide, he entered the South Australian railways, intending to become a civil engineer. After 12 months of office drudgery, he decided upon medicine as a career.

However, to matriculate a knowledge of (the classics) was required, so he resumed schooling in 1869, at St. Peter’s College, Adelaide. He matriculated in 1870, also gaining the Young Exhibition for the best scholar of the year. Leaving Adelaide in 1870, he trained at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and the University of London. A brilliant scholar, he won a Senior Scholarship (1872), and the first diploma (M.R.C.S.) of the College of Surgeons of England (1874). He graduated Bachelor of Medicine in 1875, gaining first places in Medicine and Forensic Medicine, and two gold medals, and was admitted as L.R.C.P. He became House Physician at St. Bartholomew’s in 1876.   He graduated M.D. in 1876, “with proficiency in all subjects”, winning a further gold medal. A fourth gold medal was awarded for his Bachelor of Surgery degree in 1877. This was followed by admission to F.R.C.S Eng., appointment at Midwifery Assistant to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (1877).

George Dixon Monocular microscope with box, manufactured in London, circa 1870 . Used by Dr JC Verco in London in the 1870s when he was a medical student.

He returned to South Australia as Surgeon-Superintendent of the barque Clyde. After registration in 1878 he practised as a general practitioner (like all the other medical practitioners of the time), but gradually restricted his practice to that of a physician. He was appointed honorary Physician at the Adelaide Hospital (1882) with the privilege of being allowed to operate on patients with hydatid diseased of the thorax. He also became Honorary Medical Office at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital until 1890, when he resigned becoming Consulting Physician. He clearly did not restrict his practice there to that of a physician, as on 30 November 1888 he operated to remove a hydatid of the brain, this being believed to be the first time this operation was attempted in Australia (unfortunately unsuccessfully) (Barbalet, 1975).

In 1885 the Medical School of the University of Adelaide was founded, Verco and E.C. Stirling being the virtual founders. Verco was appointed honorary joint-lecturer in medicine (T. Davies Thomas being the other), commencing teaching in 1887, and during 1888 becoming sole lecturer in medicine (Thomas became chronically ill and died in 1893). He continued to lecture until 1915, and was also honorary clinical lecturer at the Adelaide Hospital until 1912, and a clinical teacher from 1887–1909 and 1915-1919. Apart from his consulting practice, he was Chief Medical Officer of the South Australian Branch of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, until retirement in 1919.

In 1887 he was elected President of the first Intercolonial Medical Congress of Australasia, held in Adelaide, despite being only 36 years of age and in practice for nine years. When he gave his Presidential Address he was in the early stages of an attack of enteric (typhoid) fever. He was a foundation member (1879) of the South Australian Branch of the British Medical Association, its President over 1886-1887 and again from 1915-1919. He became a member of the Council of the University of Adelaide over 1895-1902, and again over 1919-1928. He was Acting Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1889, and again Dean of the Faculty during 1920-1921. In 1921 he became Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry (which he was instrumental in founding), until 1928.

Despite his busy life as a consultant and administrator he was able to make some contributions to medical literature. Perhaps the most important of these were the joint articles with E. C. Stirling in Allbutt’s (later Allbut and Rolleston’s) “A system of medicine by many writers” (1897, 1907). He contributed also an article on myxoedema. Earlier he had written a penetrating review (1879) of the statistics of consumption (tuberculosis) in South Australia.

Resigning from the position of Honorary Physician at the Adelaide Hospital (1912), he was appointed Honorary Consulting Physician. He was recognized as Adelaide’s leading physician. On retirement, he was made Knight Bachelor, being the second medical practitioner to be so honoured in South Australia, (the first was E.C. Stirling).

In the necessary convalescence from his attack of typhoid (of seven or eight months) which included a trip to New Zealand, he revived a boyhood interest in shell-collecting (having early decided that these were less fragile than insects, and unlikely to explode like bird’s eggs). His interests in marine collecting increased, and his eldest brother, William James Verco (1842-1891), a wheat merchant, lent him one of the ketches used for bringing wheat from outlying South Australian ports to Port Adelaide. He learnt the techniques of dredging, and collected shells crabs, sponges and other marine life, for later submission to specialists. In 1902 E.C. Stirling, then Director, South Australian Museum, accompanied Verco on dredging trips, fostering Verco’s association with the Museum. Verco had made his first gift of shells to the Museum in 1898, and later was to make various generous gifts of specimens, books, apparatus and money. The Verco material is considered as one of the outstanding collections of the world (Hale, 1956). On other occasions Verco hired seaworthy vessels and made trips lasting as long as 10-12 days in deeper waters of South Australia, e.g. along the continental shelf of the Great Australian Bight, as well as off Western Australia; he also went on a dredging trip on the (later ill-fated) Commonwealth research fishing vessel Endeavour. From these efforts came a series of papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, over 1895-1918, and later in the Records of the South Australian Museum (1922-1928), as well as in the Proceedings of the Malacological Society of London (1931), on the molluscan fauna of South Australia. Verco had been appointed Honorary Curator of Mollusca at the South Australian Museum in 1914, and after retirement he spent much of his time working there. Over-all, he described 169 new species or subspecies (as “varieties”) of marine molluscs. In 1926 he donated to the museum his shell collection, as well as his valuable library on conchology, of works in English, French and German. A manuscript was also composed on the details of his trips, later edited by Bernard C. Cotton and published (1935) as ‘Combing the southern seas” (Rigby).

Verco had become a Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Adelaide in 1878 (it became the Royal Society of South Australia in 1880). He was elected President in 1903, and held this position until 1921, declining to be re-elected, but accepted the positon of Vice-President, and later serving on Council until his death. He gave important financial support to the Royal Society of South Australia, presenting £1000. to found its Research and Endowment Fund, and persuading others to give similar sums. He also gave other substantial support, including donating an ornate President’s chair.

 His generosity extended financially in other scientific areas. With the foundation of the Medical Sciences Club of South Australia, he presented in 1926 the sum of £5000. to found the Australian Journal of experimental Biology and medical Science, (this became the Journal of cellular immunity) and also supported other medical organizations and institutions financially as well as administratively. On resigning from the Honorary Staff of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital in 1890 he supported it financially, endowing a cot, and making other gifts, he supported also the Queen Victoria Convalescent Home.

Although reserved by nature, his wisdom and generosity was universally recognized. He was punctilious but courteous. Although severe with his students (as in everything, his thoroughness was a by-word), he was always esteemed by them, and known as “Uncle Joe” or sometimes as “Holy Joe”.   He was one of the earliest medical practitioners of Adelaide to introduce a case-records system, and when this became onerous he learnt shorthand.

He is commemorated in the Verco Theatre of the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, (with portrait plaque in bronze), at one stage the main lecture theatre for clinical and postgraduate medical teaching in Adelaide.     Verco Ward of the Royal Adelaide Hospital is also named for him. He is commemorated also in the specific names of a number of molluscs, as well as one fish and one crustacean. In 1928 the Royal Society of South Australia instituted the Sir Joseph Verco medal ‘for distinguished scientific investigations carried out by a member of the Royal Society of South Australia”.

In his younger days he wore a flourishing black beard; in later years he always wore a full, but pointed, beard. He was a worshipping member of the Church of Christ, Adelaide.

On 13 April 1911 he married at North Adelaide Mary Isabella (born 1867, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia), daughter of Samuel Mills and Elizabeth (nee Armstrong), who survived him. There were no children.

Sir Joseph Verco, circa 1920

Obituary notices

  •  British Medical Journal;   12August 1933, 16 September 1933
  • Lancet; 12August 1933
  • Malacological Society London, Proceedings;  15 November 1933
  • Medical Journal Australia;   16 September 1933
  • South Australian Naturalist;   August 1933
  • Trans. Royal Society South Australia;   1933

General References

Barbalet, Margaret   1975            The Adelaide Children’s Hospital 1876-1976. A History. (The Adelaide Children’s Hospital; Adelaide).

Cotton, B. C.  1933            Obituary and bibliography of conchological works of Sir Joseph Cooke Verco. S.Aust. Naturalist 14 (4): 121-124 (Aug.31)

Hale, H. M.  1956            The first hundred years of the Museum – 1856-1956. Rec. S.Aust. Mus., Vol.12:v-xi, 1-225

Hone, F.S.  1933            Sir Joseph Verco and the Medical School. The Review, Adelaide Medical Students’ Society 26 (44):4-9; and other articles in the same number by R.H. Pulleine, B.C. Cotton and others.

Hughes, J.E.  1967        A history of the Royal Adelaide Hospital (Board of Management, Royal Adelaide Hospital).     (2nd edn., 1982)

Roach, B.S.   1933            Obituary notice Sir Joseph Verco (1851-1933) Trans. Royal Society S.Aust. 57:v-viii.

Southcott, R.V.   1986       Chapter 8:Medical sciences (history of, to 1924) in Ideas and endeavours,  – The natural sciences in South Australia. (ed. C.R. Twidale, M.J. Tyler and M Davies)    ( Royal Society of South Australia, Adelaide), pp 213-234

Statton, Jill (ed.) 1986      Biographical index of South Australians 1836-1885(4vols) (South Australian Genealogy and Heraldry Society Inc.)

Verco, P.W.   1976        Masons, millers and medicine: James Crabb Verco and his sons.   (Lutheran Publishing House: Adelaide).

Specific References

Verco, J.C.  1879 . The South Australian statistics of consumption.  Trans. Proc .Rep. Phil. Soc. Adelaide, S.Aust. for 1878-9, 2, 11-32.

Verco, J.C., and Stirling, E.C. 1897. Hydatid disease, pp.1102-1144, in T.C. Allbutt (ed.)     ‘A system of medicine by many writers’, I I.. (Macmillan: London and New York).

Stirling, E.C., and Verco, J.C. 1907. Hydatid diseases, I I (I I ), pp 970-1039, in‘A system of medicine by many writers’(edn.2) In T.C. Allbutt and H. D. Rolleston (eds.)   ‘Tropical diseases and animal parasites’. (Macmillan: London and New York).

Verco, J.C. 1906.  Presidential address to Royal Society of South Australia.   Tran. Roy. Soc. S.Aust. 30:335-343.

Verco, J.C.   1895-1918. Papers on molluscs in Tran. Roy. Soc. S.Aust.

Verco, J.C.    1908.   Catalogue of marine molluscs of South Australia (Hussey and Gillingham, Adelaide).

Verco, J.C.  1922-1928.  Papers on molluscs in Rec. S.Aust. Mus. (1928 paper with B.C. Cotton).

Verco, J.C.    1931.  Paper in Proc. Malacol. Soc. Lond. 19:168-170 (with B.C. Cotton).

Verco, J.C.    1935.  Combing the southern seas. (ed. B.C. Cotton). (Rigby: Adelaide).

1988 Archival Holdings 

Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia

University of Adelaide

South Australian Museum

Dr. P. W Verco, Adelaide