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Montefiore David (Bill) Silberberg (1882–1959)

by Sue Silberberg

Montefiore David Silberberg (1882-1959), (known to his family as ‘Mon’ and to his colleagues as ‘Bill’), cardiologist and Jewish community leader, was born on 27 August 1882 at Branxholme, Victoria. He was the sixth of seven children of London-born Caroline neé Isaacs and Mayer Mathias Silberberg, a storekeeper, hotelier, and local politician. Mayer Mathias Silberberg was born in Poland but had immigrated in 1853 as a child with his family from France.

Educated largely at Branxholme State School, in 1899 Montefiore Silberberg won a scholarship to Wesley College, where he completed his education, matriculating in 1900 and enrolling at the University of Melbourne to study medicine. He also entered Queens College, where he received the Dodgson Scholarship, and later the Jamison and Falkingham Scholarships.[1] In 1912 he returned to the college as a resident tutor in medicine, and in 1920 as president of the college’s Wyvern Society.

Graduating with honours, he was awarded his MBBS in 1906. Between 1907 and 1908 he was the resident medical officer and medical registrar at the Melbourne Hospital, collaborating with Sir Hugh Devine in the installation of the first comprehensive system of clinical case recording to be adopted in Melbourne. In 1909 he was also the resident medical officer at the Children’s Hospital, the same year he received his MD.[2]

In 1910 Silberberg began postgraduate study in England under the pioneering cardiologists Sir James McKenzie and, later, Sir Thomas Lewis, focusing on the study of digitalis and electrocardiography.[3] On his return to Australia in 1912, he brought the first electrocardiography machine to be used for medical purposes in the country. 

Opening a private practice at 14 Collins Street, Melbourne, Silberberg concurrently held honorary positions at Melbourne’s public hospitals, including the Children’s Hospital (1915-26), The Melbourne Hospital (later Royal Melbourne, 1920-45), the Repatriation Hospital, Caulfield (1922-35), the Women’s Hospital (1921-?) and the Alfred Hospital (1919-1945), where he was chair of the honorary medical staff. He was also the honorary physician to the Montefiore Homes.[4]

At the same time, Silberberg was awarded a research scholarship at the University of Melbourne, where he examined ‘The Effect of Interference with the Coronary Circulation of the Heart.’ From 1915, on his return from the front, he was the university’s Stewart Scholar in Medicine and from 1921 the Stewart Lecturer in Medicine, before also becoming a lecturer at the Dental Hospital.[5]

In 1916, although already in his mid-thirties, Silberberg put his busy practice on hold and joined the AIF as a captain in the 14th Australian General Hospital stationed in Egypt. During his leisure hours he contributed to newspaper articles on the archaeology he observed during deployment.[6]Unfortunately, invalided home with an obscure illness, he remained seriously ill for three years.

Recovering from his illness, he met his future wife, Vera Kaye (Kornblum), who had recently returned from England, and the two were married in October 1920 at St Kilda Hebrew Congregation.

Judaism was important to the Silberberg family and Montefiore had been given a Jewish education by a specially employed governess, which included lessons in Hebrew. These were undertaken despite the fact that the family lived two hundred kilometres from the nearest synagogue in Ballarat, instilling in Silberberg a strong Jewish identity which continued throughout his life.[7] From 1913 he began presenting lectures and publishing philosophical and topical papers on Jewish subjects and, by 1922, the Australian Jewish Herald had identified him as one of the most prominent Jews in Victoria.[8]

His wife Vera had experienced Liberal Judaism in London, and in 1930, after Ada Phillips had suggested the establishment of a Liberal Synagogue in Melbourne, Silberberg became both a foundation member and member of the board. In 1932 he became president of the congregation, and with the German-born Rabbi Herman Sanger they brought a seriousness and gravitas to the congregation.[9] By the time he retired in 1949 (still the congregation’s longest-serving president), the synagogue was so successful that it struggled to accommodate the 250 religious school students and 1,700 High Holiday Day congregants.[10] On his retirement, the congregation nominated him life president in recognition of his achievements.  

Throughout Silberberg’s life he was active in other aspects of the Jewish community, as president of the Melbourne Jewish Young People Council and as vice president of the Victorian Jewish Graduates and Under Graduates Association.[11] In 1936 his interest in the Zionist movement and the nascent Israeli society led Silberberg along with several other Jewish doctors to establish The Friends of the Hebrew University, a group which he would also lead as president.[12] He was also a foundation member, and for many years the president, of the Australian Fellowship of the Israel Medical Association. He left a scholarship through the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which provided a lectureship for young cardiologists. Following his death, the Association established two prizes in his name for research into heart disease.[13] In 1936 he joined the board of the newly formed Victorian Zionist Organisation Southern Section.[14]

As one of the leading physicians of his generation, Silberberg was committed to the development of the profession. In 1938 he became a foundation Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, and he served on the council from 1938 to 1944. He was also active in the Australian Cardiac Society, becoming its president in 1954. Throughout his career he developed the practice of cardiology, with an interest in V lead electrocardiography, and soon became proficient in its interpretation.[15] He continued to publish his research in the fields of cardiology, particularly in the areas of arrhythmia, fibrillations, angina, and coronary occlusion.[16]

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Silberberg and his wife were instrumental in assisting refugees, sponsoring individuals, and directly aiding others. They opened their house for a variety of fundraising and charitable purposes, including organising hospitality for visiting Jewish allied servicemen.

Silberberg’s altruistic outlook reflected his attitude to his patients. He kept a driver on call to enable him to attend to a patient anywhere in Victoria at any time of the day or night, and if they could not pay, he did not charge them. In the 1930s he assisted with the absorption of refugees by treating them also without payment.[17]

Esteemed for his gentle wisdom and graciousness, Silberberg died of cancer on 26 June 1959 and was cremated, his ashes subsequently scattered at Springvale Cemetery.[18] He was survived by his wife and two sons.

  

 

[1] University of Melbourne Calendars, 1903, 1904, 1905.

[2] The Medical Journal of Australia, 5 December 1959, 865.

[3] The Medical Journal of Australia, 5 December 1959, 865.

[4] Peter Yule, The Royal Children's Hospital: A History of Faith, Science and Love (Rushcutters Bay: Halstead Press, 1999), 609; Alan Gregory, The Ever Open Door: A History of the Royal Melbourne Hospital 1848-1998 (South Melbourne: Hyland House), 219; Who’s Who in Australia (Melbourne: The Herald Press, 1938), 459; Australian Jewish News, 20 May 1960, 7.

[5] Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 2 April 1915, 11; University of Melbourne Calendars, 1916, 1918, 1934, 1938; Australian Jewish News, 22 July 1921, 14; Australian Jewish News, 26 June 1959, 2.

[6] Hamilton Spectator, 19 May 1917, 3.

[7] Jewish Herald, 16 September 1895, 6.

[8] Australian Jewish Herald, 21 September 1922, 7.

[9] John S. Levi, My Dear Friends: The Life of Rabbi Dr Herman Sanger (Ormond: Hybrid Publishers, 2009), 47

[10] Nineteenth Annual Report and Balance Sheet of the Board of Management 1948, 10

[11] Australian Jewish Herald, 30 May 1935, 6.

[12] Argus, 14 February 1936, 10.

[13] Australian Jewish News, 20 May 1960, 7.

[14] Australian Jewish Herald, 26 November 1936, 6.

[15] H. B. Kay, Silberberg, Montefiore David, Royal Australasian College of Physicians, 2018

[16] See the Medical Journal of Australia 1919-1942.

[17] Australian Jewish Herald, 26 June 1959, 2.

[18] Australian Jewish News, 26 June 1959, 2.

Citation details

Sue Silberberg, 'Silberberg, Montefiore David (Bill) (1882–1959)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/silberberg-montefiore-david-bill-34405/text43185, accessed 23 June 2024.

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