Sir John Burton Cleland (1878-1971), pathologist and naturalist, was born on 22 June 1878 at Norwood, South Australia, elder son of William Lennox Cleland, medical practitioner, and his wife Matilda Lauder Burton, daughter of John Hill Burton, historiographer royal for Scotland. He was educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, and the universities of Adelaide and Sydney (M.B., 1900; M.D., 1902). The deadlock between the honorary staff of the Adelaide Hospital and the government in 1897 meant that students had to transfer to medical schools in Melbourne and Sydney. In January 1900 he became house surgeon at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and next year was second resident pathologist. His M.D. thesis was on ‘Iodic purpura. Cirrhosis of the stomach and colon’. In 1903 he travelled to England and studied at the London School of Tropical Medicine, and in Glasgow. In 1904 he was cancer research scholar at London Hospital.
Next year Cleland went to Western Australia as government bacteriologist and pathologist. Bubonic plague was present in the State and he was able to study the internal parasites of Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus, and the laterality of pregnancy in these mammals. In 1907 he investigated the trypanosomal disease ‘Surra’ in camels at Port Hedland. Commercial interests objected, but the disease was finally eradicated by the identification and slaughter of infected beasts. Cleland noted also that the camels carried parasitic flies (Hippoboscidae) and ticks. One of his celebrated cases in forensic pathology at this time concerned the ‘spirit of salts murders’: death had been caused by the painting of the throat of child victims with strong hydrochloric acid, simulating diphtheria.
In 1909 Cleland joined the Bureau of Microbiology, Sydney, and he eventually became principal microbiologist. He edited the Australasian Medical Gazette, and made his major contributions to experimental medicine, in collaboration with Burton Bradley and W. McDonald. The first was the proof in 1916, using human volunteers, that the virus disease dengue is transmitted by the culicine mosquito Aedes aegypti. The second was the defining of the newly discovered encephalitis, then called ‘Australian X disease’, and the proof that it was distinct from poliomyelitis, not only by its microscopic characteristics, but also by the experimental transmission of virus strains to monkeys, sheep and other herbivores.
In 1920 Cleland was appointed first Marks professor of pathology (which then included bacteriology) at the University of Adelaide. Although it ended his experimental studies in epidemiology it allowed him to begin a systematic study of what must be one of the largest series of meticulous autopsy examinations ever conducted by one person—over 7000.
His wide intellectual interests included anthropology, botany and ornithology and wildlife conservation. He was also interested in Australian and Scottish history and literature. Though the onset of blindness in his late 80s, stoically accepted, forced Cleland to curtail his activities, his faculties were quite unclouded and intelecctual curiosity undiminished.
Cleland’s was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Royal Society of South Australia (twice), Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union, Medical Sciences Club of South Australia, and the Western Australian Natural History Society. He retired from the Central Board of Health of South Australia aged 90. Cleland’s biological collecting resulted in perhaps forty species or subspecies among fungi, vascular plants and animals being named after him, as well as a new genus Clelandia being erected in both the plant and animal worlds. Although discriminating he was not excessively pedantic or critical. It is probable that his enormous collections will leave a continuing legacy for future biologists. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1949 and knighted in 1964. He was awarded the Sir Joseph Verco medal of the Royal Society of South Australia (1933), the Clive Lord memorial medal of the Royal Society of Tasmania (1939), the Australian Natural History medallion (1952) and the John Lewis gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, S.A. Branch (1964). He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1949 and a life member of the South Australian Ornithological Association in 1961. Cleland Conservation Park in the Mount Lofty Ranges was named after him.
He was the first Fellow of the Australian Society for Parasitology in 1967.
The text on this page is an edited version of the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
R. V. Southcott, ‘Cleland, Sir John Burton (1878–1971)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cleland-sir-john-burton-5679/text9595, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 8 June 2017. This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981
The image of Sir John Clelend was sourced from http://adelaidia.sa.gov.au/people/sir-john-cleland-cbe