Dr Walter Roth 1861-1933: The Australian Pioneer of Fire Safety and Burns Prevention

Prof. John Pearn1

1Burns Unit, Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, South Brisbane, Australia, 2Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Dr Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933), whilst a medical student in London(1887) and subsequently a school teacher and later doctor (1892- 1907) in Australia, was an international pioneer in the domain of fire safety and the prevention of thermal injury. His lectures, detailed publications and advocacy for the prevention of burns had their catalyst in the aftermath of  catastrophic fires in the entertainment theatres of England and Europe.He introduced these concepts to Australia.From his base in Sydney Roth gave public lectures and published( in London) a major text on fire safety. Dr Roth was an extraordinary man,his being also an Australian pioneer in anthropology, the promotion of Aboriginal welfare and dignity, numismatics and botany. His publications in the context of fire safety included architectural details of firewalls, fireproof curtains, fire-escapes, proscenium curtains in theatres, and first aid for burns victims. He was the first to recommend the use of water in the first aid treatment of burnt victims, in an era when contemporary doctrine was to cover the burnt tissues with flour and oil. This paper presents for the first time the contributions of this pioneer of public health and preventive medicine , in the field of thermal injury and its prevention. Roth’s legacy is the high standard of thermal safety enjoyed by citizens of the  twenty-first century; and the scientific treatment of their burns.

Prof John Pearn is the paediatrician to the Lady Cilento Burns Unit , Children’s Health Queensland. A former Surgeon General to the Australian Defence Force and Head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Queensland, he has written extensively on the history of trauma, and its prevention and management in diverse domains. He is a founder of the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine; and has served for 15 years on the Committee of the International Society of the History of Medicine.


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