FAMILY TREE: Dr Bignell’s famous mother, Margaret Ann Blyth.
FAMILY TREE: Dr Bignell’s famous mother, Margaret Ann Blyth.

History: Doctor’s sudden death a shock for Lismore townfolk

IN 1928 there was one of the largest funerals ever held in Lismore, before or since.

The service at St Andrew's Anglican Church was military as well as masonic. The church was crowded, with many more people outside on the lawn.

The funeral procession to the East Lismore Cemetery included 94 cars and buses as well as 15 horse-drawn vehicles. At least 50 cars were already waiting at the cemetery for the cortege to arrive. One might be forgiven for thinking that this was the funeral of an elder statesman who had spent a long, fulfilling life in Lismore. You would be wrong!

The funeral was for Lismore doctor Francis Lawrence Bignell, who was only 42 years old when he died. He had been recovering from an appendix operation and his death was most unexpected.

A Victorian, the son of Edmund and Margaret Bignell (nee Blyth), he had graduated from Melbourne University. He then worked at Brisbane General Hospital before coming to Lismore.

His mother, Margaret, had been the first woman to graduate as a chemist in Victoria. He and his wife Kathleen (nee Clarkson) arrived in 1912 and by 1928 they had four children.

He had always been interested in the military and joined the militia soon after his arrival. When the First World War began, he was the Army's resident medical officer and, as men enlisted, he undertook their medical examinations.

In September 1916 he too enlisted in the A.I.F. and served as a major with the Army Medical Corps until the end of the war. During this time he served in France with the 26th Battalion, the 6th Field Ambulance, the 1st Casualty Clearing Station, and was in charge of the 15th Field Ambulance.

He was wounded and badly gassed at Villers-Bretonneux and had to be evacuated back to England. He returned as soon as possible to continue his work with the wounded.

He was adept at finding places close to the front line which could be used as clearing stations and surgical bases. Sometimes it was in a large hole made by artillery shells. Another was in a long sunken roadway and a further time in a captured artillery emplacement.

One occasion was during the Battle at Lagnicourt. This resulted in men being attended much more quickly, thus saving lives. He was awarded a DSO for his conspicuous gallantry.

After the war he received permission to work in several specialist hospitals in England to gain further experience. He returned to Lismore at the end of 1919.

He continued as a member of the local militia and shortly before his death he was appointed its lieutenant-colonel. He also joined several organisations including sporting clubs. He was especially interested in golf, football and horse-racing.

As a general practitioner he became well-known for his skills as a surgeon and was appointed medical superintendent and honorary surgeon at Lismore District Hospital.

Before the days of free medical treatment for the needy, he was aware of the problems of poverty, especially regarding children. He believed preventing epidemics was the best policy, especially those ailments usually affecting children. He was also very involved with the treatment of returned servicemen and supported the RSL.

When his death was announced in 1928, the whole district was shocked. It had been thought that he would have had many more years to undertake the work he had planned.

However, the severe gassing he had experienced in France had caused complications following what had been considered a routine appendix operation. His large funeral tells the story of how the people of Lismore appreciated him!

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