Crivelli, Marcel (1859–1948)

Dr Marcel Crivelli was a French physician who, together with his wife Charlotte, was a highly prominent and influential figure in the Melbourne French community for many decades from the 1890s. He was greatly respected in the medical world, and his large, long-lasting and successful practice in Melbourne included several of Australia’s leading political figures.

Marcel Urbain Crivelli was born in Saint Louis (Réunion Island) on 24 September 1859, the youngest of the six children of Louis Crivelli and Marie Louise Manès. The Crivelli family was proud of its Italian origins, and of the tradition that claimed a direct lineage to Umberto Crivelli, Pope Urban III (1120–1187). The French branch was certainly established by the 15th century, and produced several generations of distinguished jurists. Louis Crivelli was a law student when he drew political attention during anti-royalist demonstrations in 1830. He took up an offer to redeem himself by accepting to go to the Île Bourbon (as Réunion was again called at that time) in order to set up a school. He married into a prominent local family, and went on to have a quite distinguished career in the education sector, rising to the rank of Inspecteur d’Académie. When Louis took his now large family back to Paris in the early 1860s Marcel was not yet five years old. He never made reference to his place of birth or early years, other than to joke that he had been ‘born under a coconut tree’ (Hélène Crivelli, 1970, 199).

Lodged in a double apartment in the Boulevard St Michel in Paris opposite the Sorbonne, the Crivellis were leading the comfortable life of bourgeois Catholics, until they were caught in the 1870 siege, and were reduced to near starvation and the same ghastly diet of black bread and stray animals as so many of their fellow Parisians. Marcel’s only sister, Marie, aged twenty, died at this time of typhoid fever. Schooled privately in his early years, Marcel attended the Lycée Saint Louis, and, despite strong opposition from his father, who wanted him to enter the law, went from there to the Paris Medical School, where he studied from 1880 until 1886. As an interne titulaire des hôpitaux de Paris, he worked with several leading medical professors, and his doctoral thesis, Nature et traitement de la blennorragie, was ranked top of its year by the Académie de la Médecine as well as winning the Prix Herpin.

That same year, in Melbourne, Dr Charles Duret was seeking someone to take over his Melbourne practice in view of his intended retirement. It was from one of the young Dr Crivelli’s medical mentors, Paul Brouardel, Dean of Forensic Medecine in Paris, that Duret sought recommendations. Having as yet formed no other plans, Marcel Crivelli accepted the offer, and after spending a few months in Britain to hone his medical and pharmacological English, set out for Australia.

To say that the Duret family smoothed his arrival in Melbourne would be an understatement. Dr Duret immediately put him to work in his thriving medical practice, and the two men appear to have got on famously. If Duret was disturbed when his middle daughter Charlotte and the new arrival fell promptly in love, there was no sign of it (Hélène Crivelli 1937).  Having reached Melbourne in January 1887, Marcel was by June registered by the Victorian Medical Board, engaged to be married, and a member of the Melbourne Club. Two years later, Duret wrote to his youngest daughter Pâquerette: ‘You can spoil your brother-in-law, Marcel. He is the most perfect of brothers-in-law, sons-in-law and husbands’ (Deguy-Frapier 1972–1984, 33). The lavish wedding of Charlotte Duret with Marcel Crivelli, celebrated in October 1887 at St Mary’s Church St Kilda, and officiated over by Bishop James Corbett (a Duret family friend), was attended by the cream of French and British establishment Melbourne society.

When the Durets returned to France, they left their house in Albert Park to the young Crivelli couple, and it is a sign of persisting Duret influence that the two subsequent Crivelli homes –– one just a few doors down in Ferrars St, the other in South Yarra –– were also named ‘Arrou’, after Charlotte’s birthplace in France. More importantly, Charlotte’s circle of eminent friends would remain vital to Marcel’s power base in Melbourne. As the newspaper social notes of the period from 1890 to the mid-1930s demonstrate, the couple were fixtures in every notable social event in the city, from soirées, concerts and the opera to receptions and balls hosted by the Mayor and State Governor.

Marcel’s independent capacity to extend and strengthen that base soon became evident. He was an indisputable presence. Table Talk sketched him thus: ‘In person Dr. Crivelli is tall and strong built, having a full pale face, upon which he wears a closely-cut black beard. In manners, he is a typical Frenchman –– kind, courteous, buoyant; and he possesses that surest sign of real merit –– diffidence and modesty’ (15 March 1895, 3). He was also ambitious, adventurous, hugely energetic and unfailingly self-confident. Within the French community, he was closely involved with the establishment of the Alliance Française, and often called upon to speak on matters of community interest. In his family life, he appears to have been an attentive husband and a good father to his seven children, organising explorative travels in Australia and the region, as well as regular trips back to France and memorable holidays in grand estates in country Victoria. He also made time to enjoy his hobbies of shooting, hunting and riding.

It was through his medical career, however, that he was most prominent and admired. Well before being granted his ad eundem gradum MD (1899) and BS (1900) by the University of Melbourne, as well as setting up a home surgery, he had established a private hospital that would grow in importance and size until his retirement. As a corresponding member of the Paris Anatomical and Clinical societies, he kept in close touch with medical developments in France, and he was a regular attendee at both Australian and international medical congresses, and indeed presided over the Australian delegations to Paris (1900) and Madrid (1903). His popularity was widely recognised, as was his willingness to experiment with new methods or techniques unfamiliar in the Melbourne medical world. Such ‘cures’ as his Brown-Sequard tonic for nervous disorders illustrate his imperturbable boldness in the face of scepticism from colleagues who nonetheless continued to voice their high respect for his work (Weekly Times (1889).

There is no trace of Dr Crivelli’s medical records today, and very little of his correspondence survives, but he published a number of scientific papers in both French and English, and the examples cited below from the Intercolonial Medical Journal of Australasia demonstrate his training in careful scientific observation and experimentation and his commitment to matters of public health (Crivelli 1896, 1900). In addition to his role as designated doctor to the members of the French community, his clientele was numerous and varied, and included many significant figures: a Prime Minister (Alfred Deakin), a Federal Treasurer (John Forrest), the Chief of General Staff of the Commonwealth Military Services (Major General John Charles Hoad), a Postmaster General (Austin Chapman), and several parliamentarians, including the first woman to serve in the Victorian Parliament, Lady Millie Peacock. Marcel Crivelli was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1903 and was promoted to Officier in 1927.

His life and career were not without difficult moments, nor was he always kindly or generous-hearted. From 1893, he stood several times, unsuccessfully, for election in the French Medical Academy, and it was not until 1919 that he finally gained membership in the Academy’s Second Section (Surgery, Birthing and Specialist Surgery). While there can be little doubt that his distance from France disadvantaged him in the early years, there is some evidence that his sons’ war service and his wife’s outstanding fund-raising efforts were considerations in his eventual election (Bulletin de l’Académie de Médecine, 1916). Also during the 1890s, he was caught up in a protracted law suit involving a gold-mining venture in Western Australia, when members of ‘The French Prospecting Syndicate’ fell out. The court records of these tangled dealings reveal more pettifoggery than criminality, but Marcel Crivelli would not have been pleased with a settlement that forced him to apologise to his adversary and pay his expenses (Cayron vs Crivelli 1895, 1896).

With the arrival of the First World War, Dr Crivelli became the examining medical officer for both the French and Italian consulates in decisions about eligibility for military service. It is perhaps not surprising, given that three of his own sons (four by war’s end) were fighting under French colours, that he should have adopted stringent standards regarding potential shirking of duty. Nonetheless, his anger towards some young Frenchmen who failed to show up for their medical examination led to very intemperate language: ‘Let us hope that the ignominy henceforth attached to their names will mean that they no longer dare call themselves French, and that the dishonour their cowardice has inflicted on our little French colony in Australia will not flow onto those who are doing their duty’ (Marcel Crivelli 1914). In a similar vein, he was unyielding in his insistence that a forty-one-year-old Italian merchant, Giovanni Ferrando, was fit for military duty, and should be shipped off to Italy accordingly. (Rejected on arrival, Ferrando returned to Melbourne to launch a damages suit against Crivelli, the Italian Consul and the Australian Defence Minister. It was unsuccessful, but it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Ferrando’s cause (NAA 1918)),

None of the shadows that fell across Dr Crivelli’s trajectory appear to have affected his overwhelmingly positive reputation in any lasting way. After his retirement from public activity in the 1930s, he continued to enjoy life with his children and grandchildren, and to see a few patients at his home in South Yarra, where he died peacefully at the age of 89. He is buried with his wife of over sixty years, Charlotte, in the St Kilda Cemetery.

Image: Dr Crivelli with son René c.1900, Michael Crivelli Collection.
Author: Colin Nettelbeck, Emeritus Professor University of Melbourne, November 2019

Bulletin de l’Académie de Médecine, 1916, 3º série, tome LXXVI, pp. 547–548.
‘Cayron vs Crivelli’, Victorian State Records Office, VPRS 267/P7, units 1180, 1203.
Crivelli, Hélène, 1937, ‘A True Love Story’, manuscript: Olivier Crivelli collection.
Crivelli, Hélène, c.1970, Maison Crivelli branche française notes historiques et souvenirs, typescript, State Library Victoria, SLT 929.2 C8699M.
Crivelli, Marcel, 1896, ‘A Case of Lateral Deviation of the Trunk, Produced by Adhesions of the Superior Gluteal Nerve to an Extosis of the Ilium’, Intercolonial Medical Journal of Australasia, vol I, nº 2, pp. 94–99.
Crivelli, Marcel, 1900, ‘Alcoholism: Its Pathological Physiology and its Treatment’, Intercolonial Medical Journal of Australasia, vol V, nº1, pp.48–62.
Crivelli, Marcel, 1914, Letter to French Vice-Consul Melbourne, Ministère des Affaires Étrangères 428 PO/1, Box 48.
Deguy-Frapier, Madeleine, 1972–1984, Souvenirs, typescript, 345 pp. Kindly transmitted by David Clément, great grand-son of Pâquerette Duret-Deguy.
National Archives of Australia (NAA), 1918, MP 367/1 592/4/1145, 1151, 973, 1086.
Table Talk, 1895, ‘A Group of Frenchmen’,15 March, p. 3.
Weekly Times, 1889, ‘The Brown-Sequard Cure: Dr Crivelli’s Experiments Marvellous Results’, 19 October, p. 7.
Keywords: Crivelli family, Melbourne Medical History, Alfred Deakin.