History of Sydney Hospital
Written by the late Dr Frank Ritchie,
President, Sydney Hospital Board (1968 - 1982)
Front view of the Sydney Hospital and Sydney Eye
Hospital has always considered its heritage as deriving directly from
Surgeon-General John White’s First Fleet sick tents which were pitched on the
west side of Sydney Cove. The portable hospital was prefabricated in England
from wood and copper, which had arrived in Sydney with the Second Fleet in
In 1816, convict patients were transferred to Governor
Macquarie’s new hospital, built by contractors in return for a rum monopoly.
But Macquarie’s Sydney could not sustain a general hospital on the scale
provided. From the start, portions of the buildings were allocated for
non-medical purposes. The present Parliament House (north
wing) and the
building known as the Mint (south wing), serve to remind us of the style and
magnitude of the 'Rum Hospital'.
Colonial governments accepted a degree of responsibility for
pauper patients who were not convicts. However, as convict numbers declined and
the emancipated and free population grew, the government disengaged itself from
direct responsibility for the 'respectable poor'. Meanwhile, the Sydney
Dispensary had been created in 1826 to provide outpatient care for
persons, unable to pay for medical attendance'. It was conducted on traditional
charitable lines and operated from several city premises before obtaining the
south wing of the Rum Hospital. At the same time, the institution expanded to
serve inpatients and changed its name to the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, a
title officially approved in 1844. Convict inpatients continued to be treated
in the separately managed hospital next door.
With the dissolution of the convict hospital system, the Sydney
Infirmary and Dispensary gave up the south wing in 1848 in return for
permissive occupancy of the entire middle section of the Rum Hospital complex.
With minor variations, it has retained the site to the present day. The
institution changed its name to Sydney Hospital in 1881.
A close-up view of the Sydney Hospital and Sydney
Eye Hospital building.
the Sydney Dispensary sprang a remarkable tradition of outpatient care which
included visits by honorary doctors to the homes of patients too ill to attend
the dispensary. By 1839, it was necessary to pay a 'district surgeon' to
undertake this work. In 1845 there were four district surgeons and from 1862,
six, each with his own territory. This system was discontinued in 1893, but for
many decades thereafter, Sydney Hospital conducted two dispensaries located in
the densely populated areas of Redfern and Paddington. The Eye Hospital is a
surviving part of this offsite tradition, starting at Miller’s Point in 1882
and moving to Woolloomooloo in 1922. The Eye
Hospital rejoined Sydney Hospital on campus in 1996.
Another crucial feature of our dispensary heritage concerns
possession of the Macquarie Street site. Had it been possible to reserve the
Rum Hospital complex for hospital purposes only; or even, had the
dispensary managed to obtain clear title to the central portion earlier than
1878; it seems to me that our acrimonious 100 year struggle for survival
could have been avoided. The die was cast in those formative years. Without
certain tenure, Sydney Hospital provided sport for critics of all persuasions.
Yet public opinion has prevailed and hopefully we shall long remain to echo the
loyalty of the Board of Directors of 1853, who declared:-
What would this city, what would the colony do without the
Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary; where would the unhappy
victims of disease
meet with relief of cure? What doors would be open for the houseless stranger,
or the sons and daughters of poverty, suffering under acute and dangerous
disease? 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 skilful
medical men, and the best of treatment are
secured for them. If there be one benevolent
Institution more deserving of support than another
it is this ...
Although first, still the best