This item appeared on eBay with an enclosed letter from W.J. Blackburn, Ambulance Officer, Administrative Offices, Victorian Railways, Spencer Street, Melbourne on 23 August, 1939. It was a form letter congratulating Lawrence W. Tyler on his success in the First Aid Examination. It explained the various levels of the award and wished that the recipient continues his studies to achieve the Gold Life Membership Medal in his 8th year. (Figure 1).

The enclosed certificate is the item of interest as it originates from The Grand Priory of the British Realm of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, The St. John Ambulance Association whose Patron is His Majesty The King (George VI) and Grand Prior is HRH The Duke of Gloucester. It qualifies the recipient to render “First Aid to the Injured”. It is dated September 1st 1941, and there are 3 signatories, but Rupert M. Downes MD MS, President of Centre, is the signee of particular interest (Figure 2).

The stampless envelope, of the correct size to take the certificate without folding, had a header of G. 104/ O.H.M.S./ VICTORIAN RAILWAYS, and was rubber stamped CERTIFICATE/ DON’T BEND, but was not addressed to the person named on the certificate!

Rupert Major Downes (1885-1945), surgeon and soldier, was born on 10 February 1885 at Mitcham, Adelaide, youngest child of Major General Major Francis Downes and his wife Helen Maria Chamberlin. Rupert was educated at Haileybury College and the University of Melbourne (M.B., Ch. B. 1907, M.D. 1911 & M.S. 1912). Whilst at school he joined the Victorian Horse Artillery as a trumpeter, and in 1908 he was commissioned as a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, being promoted to major in 1913, and he also worked as a surgical assistant at 2 hospitals in Melbourne. The same year he married Doris Mary Robb at Toorak.. In 1914 he was given command of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance, promoted to Lt-Colonel, and was made the commander of the 3rd L.H.F.A. at Gallipoli. He was promoted to colonel and served as Assistant Director of Medical Services in Egypt.

Downes was remarkable as an innovator and organizer, introducing a sledge for moving casualties over sand, dividing the field ambulances into mobile units close to battle with tented sections miles back to give extensive treatment in safer conditions. In the Jordan Valley in 1918, his anti-malarial measures kept sickness at acceptable levels, and he dropped medical supplies from aircraft at the battle for Es Salt in May of that year. He was mentioned in dispatches six times and inducted in the order of St. Michael & St. George (CMG). After the war he wrote the section on the Sinai and Palestine campaign in the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, and engaged in building his surgical practice in Melbourne.

He held membership in numerous places and organisations including consulting honorary surgeon, foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, president of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association, lecturer at the University of Melbourne, chairman of the Masseur’s Registration Board, a councillor of the Victorian division of the Australian Red Cross, and chairman of the Red Cross National Council in 1939. He became commissioner of the St. John Ambulance Brigade and was president of the St. John Ambulance Association for eight years. In 1929 he was appointed a commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and a Knight of Grace in 1937.

In 1928 Downes joined a committee appointed to examine the mobilization of Australian medical resources for the war. He vigorously opposed the conscription of doctors and medical students under the direction of the Minister of Health. In 1934 he was appointed director general of medical services and was promoted to major general the next year. In the five years to the outbreak of war in 1939, he selected and trained many leaders of the Australian Army Medical Corps, foresaw civil as well as military medical problems, planned their solution and pioneered major developments in the medical side of recruitment.

When Downes was almost 60 he was soon to retire, and he was invited to write the medical history of Australia in the war. Whilst he was engaged in this new task he decided to accompany major general Vasey to New Guinea and on 5 March 1945 their aircraft crashed into the sea off Cairns with loss of all on board. Downes was buried at the Cairns War Cemetery with military honours, being survived by his wife and two daughters. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons established the Rupert Downes Memorial Lecture in his honour. To the amazement and dismay of his colleagues neither the army nor government bestowed any mark of distinction on him. Vale, Rupert Downes! (Figure 3).

The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem is a working order of charitably minded men and women whose philanthropy is expressed principally through its two foundations, the St. John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem and the St. John Ambulance. The Order traces its origins to the Knights Hospitaller, of the Crusades, who served the Abbey of St. Mary’s small hospital for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem in the 12th century.