Dead Man’s Penny

By Gabrielle Murphy

Behind each Dead Man’s Penny (also referred to as the Soldier’s Penny) lies a story of young life lost and the accompanying anguish of family and friends left to grieve and regret.

In May 1916, immediately after his graduation with a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Melbourne, and a year working as a resident medical practitioner at the Melbourne Hospital, Melville Rule Hughes enlisted in the Australian Army’s Medical Officers’ Corps.

He was posted as a Medical Officer to the 59th Battalion in August and less than a year after embarking from Australia, while caring for the wounded at Begamy in France, was killed by a shell burst on 20th March 1917.

Some 70 years on, Captain Hughes’ family made a bequest to the University of Melbourne in his honour and to commemorate his memory.

“Part of the bequest from John Charles Farrin Webb was to provide an annual scholarship in surgery to be known as The Melville Hughes Scholarship,” says Professor Andrew Kaye, James Stewart Professor of Surgery and Head of the Department of Surgery at the University of Melbourne.

“In accordance with the family’s wishes, the scholarship is awarded by the Professor of Surgery to a graduate in medicine, born in Victoria or of Victorian parents, to assist in pursuing studies to obtain a degree of Master of Surgery.”

Bronze medallion
Bronze medallion
Photographed In: Melbourne
Description: Image of Anzac death medal awarded to the families of soldiers killed in the Anzac campaign in 1915.

The bequest, which has already proved invaluably beneficial – in terms of scholarship and opportunity to recipients and to patients alike – came with yet another gift to the university.

This gift was the donation of the Death Penny sent to Melville Hughes’ family which, like the memorial plaques sent to other grieving Australian families who had lost loved ones in the Great War of 1914–18, only started to arrive from 1922 onwards.

Melville Hughes’ memorial plaque, individually inscribed as were all the plaques with his full name but no rank – to underline the equality of the sacrifice– will be displayed in the Melbourne Medical School’s exhibition ‘Courage and Compassion: Doctors and Dentists at War’ which will run until April 2016.

“The Death Penny, as it’s often called, is a symbol of loss and of particular value to us,” says Jacqueline Healy, curator of the Medical History Museum.

“It came to us in mint condition in its original packaging, with the message of condolence signed by King George V and the letter the family received at the time.”

For Dr Healy, the Death Penny is important and significant for a number of reasons, as an object of art and aid memoire but primarily for what it symbolises of the wide and complex reactions to war, and the First World War in particular.

“Of the over 1 million 150 thousand plaques that were distributed throughout the British Empire, some were made into small shrines for display in the bereaved households who received them, some were left unopened, and others returned,” she says.

For Professor Kaye and the University of Melbourne, Melville Hughes’ memory lives on in the young men and women who have benefited, and will continue benefit from the scholarship which bears his name.

“The Melville Hughes Scholarship is now regarded as the preeminent research scholarship in Surgery at the University of Melbourne,” says Professor Kaye. “It has enabled many young surgeons to pursue research studies in surgery, and many of these scholars have made considerable contributions to research in varied fields of surgery, including neuro-oncology, neuro-physiology, plastic surgery, oncological surgery and systems analysis.

“They have continued on to become academic surgeons, and their continuing contribution to clinical surgery, teaching and research is a fitting tribute to the memory of Melville Hughes.”

The memorial plaque which commemorates the service and sacrifice of Melville Rule Hughes will be on display at the exhibition Compassion and Courage: Doctors and Dentists at War from 24 April 2015 to 30 April 2016 at the Melbourne Medical School’s Medical History Museum.

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