Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. Monty Perl—Pioneering Australian venereologist

Michael Abramson
Melbourne, Australia

Mathias Michal (known as Monty) Perl was born in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on 6 January 1873, the first son and second child of Michael Mathias Perl and Miriam (Mary) Davis. His father had arrived in Port Phillip aboard the Arabian in 1853 and established a successful business as a general merchant, wholesale dealer, importer, and jeweler. An account of Monty’s birth was given many years later by an elderly cousin, Gladys Samuel (neé Kaufman):

My father [Jacob Bernard Kaufman] lived with them for a while after he arrived from Plymouth, England and it was he who hearing your dear grandmother (our Aunt Mary) in labor with Monte ran in his bare feet to fetch the doctor.1

Monty was educated at Scotch College, where he received first prize for mathematics in 1887.2 He matriculated in 1890 with second class honors in chemistry3 and began to study medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1891. He graduated MB in 1897 and ChB in 1898 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Mathias Michal “Monty” Perl (1873–1936) 

Monty was first registered as a medical practitioner at his mother’s home in West Melbourne on 19 November 1897. In 1900, he was Resident Medical Officer at the Benevolent Asylum (for care of the aged) in North Melbourne. He also filled locum positions and undertook medical work for life insurance companies. He resigned from the Benevolent Asylum to enter private practice. The Asylum Committee received his resignation with regret and expressed their “appreciation for the manner in which he had discharged his duties.”4 By 1902, he was practicing at Kaleno, Pitfield Plains and Ballarat-Cressy, 120km west of Melbourne. Pitfield Plains was the site of a large mine fourteen miles from Ballarat, where the miners “felt the need to invite a medical man to come and settle among them.” Work as a country doctor in those days included treating fractured ribs in horse-and-buggy accidents,5 asphyxiation from fumes,6 head injuries from mine explosions,7 and amputating fingers crushed in mining batteries.8

This experience of treating mining accidents prepared him well when he became one of the first doctors to attend a disastrous railway crash on 20 April 1908 at Sunshine Station, 13.5 km northwest of Melbourne. At 10:50 PM, the Bendigo train ran into the Ballarat train, which was stopped at the station, killing forty-four and injuring 431, 139 of them seriously.9 (Figure 2) The next day’s newspaper referred to the Sunshine rail crash as “the most appalling in the history of the Victorian Railways.”10 Monty was reported to have said that the dead and injured were lying all over the place: “It was like what I have heard of a battlefield after a great battle.” His treatment of the survivors, many of whom subsequently became his patients, helped establish his medical practice. Victorian Railways later paid him £52/10 ($105) for professional services at Sunshine on the night of the accident.11

The coroner, Dr. R.H. Cole, convened an inquest the following month. Monty was the first expert called to give witness.12 He testified that he started for the scene of the accident at 11:59 PM on 20 April along with Charles McCaw, superintendent of passenger train services. At Sunshine he saw the body of a deceased person13 in a paddock near the station. He stated that the cause of death was traumatic shock stemming from injuries and had been instantaneous. The mother14 was calling out, “Where is my son?” After Monty was excused, the inquest proceeded to examine the train drivers, guards, station master, and other witnesses. Ultimately, the drivers of the Bendigo train and the Sunshine station master were committed for trial for manslaughter.15

Figure 2. An illustration showing the wrecked underframes of carriages from the Ballarat train following the Sunshine accident (VPRS 12800/P1 Item H2360) 

By 1911, Monty was a member of the Masonic Lodge and represented the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation at meetings of the Victorian Christian Endeavour Union.16 He was appointed a Justice of the Peace (JP) in 1912 and sat in magistrates’ courts.17 Some of these cases were reported in the press. Together with two other JPs, he officiated a case in which two young men were fined for an unlawful game of “two-up.”18 He also granted bail to a doctor and nurse charged with illegal operations (probably abortions).19 His medical work included reporting a case of anthrax to the Board of Public Health,20 treating a Commonwealth senator for congestion of the lungs,21 and a victim of suspected assault for a fractured skull.22 In 1914, he established rooms at 65 Collins St, Melbourne and stood unsuccessfully for a vacancy on the Melbourne City Council.23,24

Monty joined the Australian Army Medical Corps (Reserve) as an Honorary Captain on 8 November 1915. In 1917, he was appointed Medical Officer to the Langwarrin Army Camp (Figure 3). Many of the returning soldiers were infected with sexually transmitted diseases and the Langwarrin Camp Hospital (Figure 4) specialized in their treatment. This was an exciting time in venereology because Ehrlich had introduced salvarsan, or 606—“the magic bullet”—for syphilis in 1909.

Figure 3. Staff of the Langwarrin Army Camp.
Monty is seated in the middle row, to the right of the commanding officer,
Captain C.H. Johnson 
Figure 4. Langwarrin Venereal Diseases Hospital, 1918 (AWM neg. number A03662) 

Monty reported his experience in treating syphilis to a meeting of the British Medical Association.25 He used salvarsan, neo-salvarsan, and other arseno-benzol compounds, but preferred luargol.26 The treatment consisted of three injections of luargol, after which the blood was tested for the Wasserman reaction.27 If this was negative, the patient was discharged and given a three-month course of mercury pills. He found that “the patients, having experienced the fearful effects of the disease, never failed to carry out the treatment prescribed after they had left the ward.” However, one suspects that notwithstanding military discipline, compliance with this highly toxic early form of chemotherapy was probably no better than with modern antibiotics.

In 1924, Monty moved his rooms to 131 Collins St, Melbourne. In 1928, he established another practice at his home, 79 Wellington St, Windsor (Figure 5). Family legend has it that the infamous gangster Leslie “Squizzy” Taylor hid in the basement. Although it is unlikely that he was a patient, there may be an element of truth in this story. Taylor’s sometime solicitor, Napthali H. Sonenberg,28 lived in a ground floor flat next door (left of Figure 5). In any event, as a child, I was forbidden by my elderly great-great-aunts Hinda and Bertha (Monty’s surviving sisters who still lived in the house) from ever going down into the basement.

Figure 5. Dr. Monty Perl’s surgery at 79 Wellington St, Windsor 

Monty never married. However, he did have a long-term relationship with an actress and became an unofficial doctor to J.C. Williamson’s theatrical company.29 My grandmother remembered Monty giving her some money and his girlfriend taking her to buy books at Coles Arcade in the city. There were also free tickets to performances of plays at Williamsons’ Theatres. He was also associated with the Essendon Speed Coursing (greyhound racing) Club, Percy Walker Old Boys’ Association,30 and the Australian Lawn Bowling team.31 Sexually transmitted diseases did not respect social standing, and his professional work brought him into contact with many prominent citizens of the time.

Unfortunately, Monty developed pernicious anemia. In the days before Vitamin B12 was purified, the only available treatment was raw liver. His sister Hinda used to sear the liver under the griller before feeding it to him. I suspect that he may have developed dementia from persistent B12 deficiency. Towards the end of his life, he apparently no longer recognized family members. He died on 11 September 1936 in Brighton. A published obituary32 noted his brilliant career at the university, military service, and 25-year membership of the Masonic Lodge. He was buried at the Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton. His will appointed Hinda as executor and trustee.33 He left an estate comprising two properties, shares, a life insurance policy, and cash with a total value of £10,889 ($21,778)—a considerable sum in those days. Twenty years later, his medical colleagues, former patients, and army driver were still telling stories about Monty.


I would like to thank Miss Anne Tovell for searching the Medical Board Register and the Medical Journal of Australia. I must also thank my late grandmother, Mrs. Leah Greenbaum, and great-uncle Dr. Michael Perl for sharing their recollections of Monty with me. Mr. Tom Rigg of the Australian Railway History Society provided valuable information about the Sunshine Railway Disaster. Figure 2 is reproduced with the permission of the Victorian Keeper of Public Records. Figure 4 is reproduced with the permission of the Australian War Memorial (AWM negative number A03662).

Notes and references

  1. Letter from Gladys Samuel to Leah Greenbaum, 22 May 1967.
  2. The book prize was: Wood JG. The boy’s own book of Natural History. London: George Routledge & Sons.
  3. “Notices to students. Chemistry – Part I.” The Argus, 3 October 1890, page 10.
  4. “Resignation of Dr. M. M. Perl,” undated newspaper clipping.
  5. A remarkable bolt. The Argus, 14 December 1900, page 6.
  6. “Country news – Pitfield.” The Argus, 12 March 1902, page 8.
  7. “Serious mining accident.” The Argus, 12 June 1902, page 7.
  8. “Country news – Pitfield.” The Argus, 5 December 1902, page 7.
  9. Buckland J. “The Sunshine railway disaster.” Australian Railway History Society Bulletin 1969 (381):146-157.
  10. The Herald, 21 April 1908.
  11. Tom Rigg, Australian Railway History Society (personal communication).
  12. “Inquest resumed, Railway men examined, Important evidence, The inquiry ‘purely criminal.’” The Age, 19 May 1908.
  13. Thomas Leslie Huntington—whose body was exhumed and served as a test case for the inquest.
  14. Lily Huntington of Footscray, who subsequently became a patient of Monty’s.
  15. Drivers Milburn and Dolman were acquitted in the Supreme Court and the Crown withdrew the charges against station master Kendall-Buckland loc cit.
  16. Aron J and Arndt J. The enduring remnant: the first 150 years of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation 1841-1991. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1992
  17. Victorian Government Gazette. 27 March 1912, page 1304.
  18. “Unlawful game.” The Argus, 28 May 1915, page 11.
  19. “Serious charges – Doctor and nurse arrested.” The Argus, 4 January 1915, page 10.
  20. “Anthrax – Board of Health Action.” The Argus, 19 April 1907, page 5.
  21. “Personal.” The Argus, 3 February 1912, page 18.
  22. “Supposed assault – man with fractured skull.” The Argus, 7 September 1912, page 26.
  23. “City Council vacancy – Dr Perl’s candidature.” The Argus, 27 June 1914, page 21.
  24. “City Council election – Bourke Ward vacancy – Win for Mr Swanson.” The Argus, 7 July 1914, page 9.
  25. “British Medical Association News.” Medical Journal of Australia 1917;1:494.
  26. The treatment of syphilis with luargol was described by Jean Danysz “Luargol et Silbersalvarsan” in La Presse Médicale, n° 8, 8 p. 26, January 1921, Paris.
  27. The first serological test for syphilis. Subsequently replaced by the Venereal Diseases Reference Laboratory (VDRL) and other more specific tests.
  28. Anderson H. Larrikin crook: the rise and fall of Squizzy Taylor. Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1971 ISBN 0 7016 0370 4: 10 and 6.
  29. There is no reference to Monty in the official history of J.C. Williamsons: Tate V. A family of brothers: The Taits and J.C. Williamson: A theatre history. Melbourne: Heinemann, 1971.
  30. “Personal.” The Argus, 19 January 1923, page 10.
  31. “Notes.” The Argus, 31 March 1923, page 15.
  32. The Argus 12 September 1936:15, 14 September 1936:10.
  33. Will of Dr. M. M. Perl VPRS 7591/P2, Unit 997, File 283/705.

MICHAEL J. ABRAMSON is Emeritus Professor of Public Health & Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.  He is also an honorary Respiratory Physician at the nearby Alfred Hospital.  He has been a member of the Australian & New Zealand Society for the History of Medicine and the Australian Jewish Historical Society.

Spring 2024



One response

  1. Congratulations. Terrific article and I learned a lot.

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