Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Sydney Hospital

Julie Gianakon
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States


 Sydney Hospital, from above

In May of 1797, growing discontent among sailors of the Royal Navy erupted into the infamous Mutiny of the Nore. William Redfern was nineteen years old and the surgeon’s mate on board the HMS Standard.  Sympathetic to the sailors’ demands for better pay and living conditions, he had urged the mutineers to draw closer together in order “to become more united among themselves.” In consequence, Redfern suffered court martial and was sentenced to execution. However, he managed to avoid this fate, and after four years in prison, he was shipped off to the penal colony of New South Wales. Redfern was one of sixteen convict doctors to be transported between 1788 and 1850. Their crimes included highway robbery, dueling, and participating in Irish rebellion.1 Yet their enduring legacy was to contribute medical skills to the foundation of Australia’s first hospital, known as Sydney Hospital since 1881.

Soon after the arrival of the first fleet carrying some 730 convicts, a temporary tent hospital was erected in 1788. Most of its first patients suffered from dysentery and scurvy, contracted during the eight-month voyage from Britain. Many indigenous people sought treatment at the hospital when smallpox broke out the following year. In 1790, materials for construction of a portable hospital arrived; the rudimentary structure housed around 500 people as soon as it was built.2 William Redfern became assistant surgeon at this hospital and family doctor to Governor Lachlan Macquarie. In his novel The Nutmeg of Consolation, Patrick O’Brian sends his (fictional) protagonist Dr. Stephen Maturin to meet Redfern on his search for a patient under his care. As the two view the hospital from Dawes Hill, Redfern confesses, “I am ashamed to display this hospital in all its squalid nakedness. Happily Governor and Mrs. Macquarie are engaged on a new building.”3

This new building was under construction between 1811 and 1816.  The General Hospital, known otherwise among the colonists as the “Rum Hospital,” was financed in a manner consistent with the character of the population it served: Governor Macquarie gave three contractors a monopoly on rum distribution in the colony. The expectation that they would recover the expense of their contribution was reasonable, as the prevalence of “public houses” exceeded their proportion anywhere in Great Britain.4 Rum comprised as much of the workmen’s pay as possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the completed hospital was structurally unsound. Francis Greenway, whose crime had been forgery, was the architect Macquarie appointed to inspect the hospital. He condemned its shoddy construction and declared that it “must soon fall into ruin.”5 Greenway was placed in charge of subsequent repairs and alterations, though many defects remained uncorrected until the building’s restoration in the 1980’s.

In coming years, the hospital housed the assistant surgeon and his family. Some rooms served as wards for the 39th and 57th regiments. During the 1840s, a dispensary was “attached to the hospital for the treatment of paupers.” This became the Sydney Infirmary. Yet, from the beginning, the hospital never solely served its intended purpose. Macquarie gave into pressure to dedicate part of the building for use as a courthouse and chambers. Later, the hospital’s southern wing became the Royal Mint.6

In 1868, Florence Nightingale sent a team of nurses, led by Lucy Osburn, to the Sydney Infirmary in order to spread much-needed nursing reforms and practice. Their presence was quickly eclipsed by the first visit to Australia by a member of the Royal Family. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Victoria’s second son, was welcomed just a week after the nurses entered the country. These arrivals seemed to confirm Australia’s increasingly civilized and respectable character. But to the colony’s deep shame and embarrassment, Prince Alfred became the victim of an assassination attempt while attending a charity picnic in Sydney. Osburn and her nurses were put to the test and proved their worth by all accounts. “Daily streams of visitors” came to seek news of the prince, who quickly recovered.

As a result of his unexpected stay, there was talk of changing the name of Sydney Infirmary, which Osburn despised, to Prince Alfred Hospital. Osburn referred to herself as the “Lady Superior of Sydney Hospital,” though at the time, this was in fact a “nonexistent position in a nonexistent hospital.”7  Though Osburn enjoyed royal favor and a significant career boost, she soon faced major opposition in her efforts to reform and improve the substandard conditions of the hospital buildings. Vindication came in the form of a government commission, which condemned the “horrible operating room, stench, and vermin,” and accused the hospital committee of “interfering between the head of the nursing establishment and her nurses.” Vast improvements followed, and in 1881, the Sydney Hospital Act changed the Infirmary’s name to the one Osburn preferred.8

Today, Sydney Hospital remains at the site where it has been located since 1811.  It now includes a ground floor emergency center, two levels of clinical wards, and an operating theater. Of renown are Sydney Eye Hospital, a quaternary referral unit, and the hospital’s hand unit, a tertiary referral center.9 When the hospital celebrated its bicentennial in 2011,  Dr. John Graham, former chairman of the medical staff council, explained its legacy: “This hospital has always favored the idea physicians should be generalists and be able to handle anything … The department of medicine has never changed from what it has done for over 200 years.”10 Dr. Graham continues to advocate for the hospital’s continued importance to Sydney, pointing out that it is “the only hospital within easy reach for people in the city or, in a crisis the only hospital reachable at all.”11  His words harmonize with the statement made by the hospital’s board of directors of 1853: “Day and night its gates are open for the reception of all who are thrown into jeopardy by accidents, and the best advice of the most skillful medical men, and the best of treatment are secured for them.”12 In spite of many obstacles throughout its often colorful history, the labor and loyalty of Sydney Hospital’s staff have secured its place in history and will enable its continued service to the people of Australia in years to come.



  1. Richards, D, “Transported to New South Wales: medical convicts 1788-1850,” British Medical Journal, 295 (1987): 1609-1610.
  2. “Police Station (former),” Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, accessed December 29, 2014,  www.shfa.nsw.gov.au/sydney-About_us-Our_heritage _role-Heritage_and_Conservation_Register.htm&objectid=100.
  3. O’Brian, Patrick, The Nutmeg of Consolation (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 277.
  4. Sidney, Samuel, The Three Colonies of Australia (London: Ingram, Cooke, and Co., 1853), 71.
  5. Holcomb, Janette, Early Merchant Families of Sydney (New York: Anthem Press, 2014), 82.
  6. Crook, Ellmoos, Murray, “Assessment of Historical and Archaeological Resources of the Royal Mint site, Sydney,” Archaeology of the Modern City, Vol. 6 (Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2003), 12-13.
  7. Godden, Judith, Lucy Osburn, a Lady Displaced (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2006), 100.
  8. The University of Sydney, “Sydney Hospital,” 2012, accessed December 29, 2014, http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/museum/mwmuseum/index.php/Sydney_Hospital
  9. “Sydney Hospital & Sydney Eye Hospital,” New South Wales Government, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.seslhd.health.nsw.gov.au/SHSEH/.
  10. Corderoy, Amy, “Bicentenary of a hospital built from a rum deal,” The Sydney Morning Herald, October 29, 2011, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/bicentenary-of-a-hospital-built-from-a-rum-deal-20111028-1moaj.html.
  11. Graham, John, “Upgrading central city hospitals would safeguard against disaster,” The Age, November 28, 2012, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.theage.com/au./it-pro/upgrading-central-city-hospitals-would-safeguard-against-disaster-20121127-2a5pk.html.
  12. Ritchie, Frank, “History of  Sydney Hospital,” South East Health, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.web.archive.org/web/20050712035056/http://www.sesahs.nsw.gov.au/sydhosp/History_2.asp



JULIE GIANAKON received a bachelor’s degree in classics from Princeton University in 2011.  She is currently a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2017 – Volume 9, Issue 2
Winter 2015  |  Sections  |  Hospitals of Note

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