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Life and death in Sydney’s early hospitals

Panoramic view of Infirmary and Mint, Macquarie Street, Sydney c1870, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (SPF/321) Panoramic view of Infirmary and Mint, Macquarie Street, Sydney c1870, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (SPF/321)
The History Council of NSW’s annual festival, History Week, will start this weekend, and as this year's theme is ‘Life and Death’, we thought we'd take a look at some of Sydney’s early hospitals, places that have always borne close witness to life and death. Listen to Nicole and Tess on 2SER here  After the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the first hospital was built at Dawes Point in The Rocks. The hospital consisted of tents and provided care for more than 750 convicts, as well as the officers and crew of the 11 fleet ships, who brought with them diseases like dysentery, scurvy and smallpox to Sydney’s shores. The smallpox epidemic in 1789 that followed their arrival is believed to have wiped out more than half of the Aboriginal population in the Sydney area. In 1790, the tents were replaced by a prefabricated wooden structure brought out from Britain, that was built around Harrington Street in the Rocks. The next general hospital building was commissioned by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and built between 1811 and 1816 by convict labour on today’s Macquarie Street, up on the ridge where it dominated Sydney's skyline. To pay for its construction Macquarie turned to three local successful financiers, Garnham Blaxcell, Alexander Riley and D’Arcy Wentworth. In return he offered them a limited monopoly on the distribution of spirits in the colony, and from then on it was commonly known as the Rum Hospital. Within a year the hospital was overcrowded, unhygienic and poorly managed. For example, the two kitchens were used for other purposes - one as the overseer’s house and the other as a morgue - and so all the cooking was done in the wards. The ward windows were also bolted shut to prevent convict patients escaping and fireplaces were constantly burning. The heat and stench of sickness and human waste in those wards would have been unbearable. Treatment in those days was also rudimentary at best, sometimes involving such practices as bloodletting and administering castor oil for infectious diseases, or the application of toad’s legs as an alleged cure for tuberculosis. As historian Grace Karskens points out, the hospital was ‘a last resort for those who had exhausted all other options’ and it was soon nicknamed the ‘Sidney Slaughterhouse’.* It is perhaps fitting that next Tuesday Dr Lisa Murray, the City of Sydney historian & Dictionary of Sydney presenter, will be giving the Annual History Lecture for History Week at the Mint, the former southern wing of the Rum Hospital. Lisa’s talk, ‘Warnings from the grave: Death, glory and memory in Australian cemeteries’, is at 6pm on 4 September. (Click HERE for tickets and further info.) There’s so much on offer for all lovers of history across New South Wales during History Week, with talks, exhibitions, walks and even cooking classes. The only hard part will be choosing which events to go to! To mention just a few of the possibilities, Sydney Living Museums are holding a candlelit tour of Vaucluse House and Wentworth Mausoleum as well as a funeral cake baking session. The City of Sydney are doing a tour of the Old Sydney Burial Ground underneath Town Hall, and the State Library of NSW are hosting talks about life, death and mourning, including a panel with Dictionary authors and Library fellows Professor Grace Karskens and Catie Gilchrist. Other Dictionary of Sydney presenters are also giving talks during the week. Dr Peter Hobbins will be looking at aviation and accidents at Mascot, Dr Rachel Franks will be looking at the history of executions as entertainment in the colony, and why the history of crime is always so popular, and Dr James Dunk will be looking at Governor Darling's suicides. Head over to the History Council of NSW website to have a look at the full program, with events being held all over New South Wales. There's an interactive guide  that lets you sort through your options here, and a downloadable pdf guide here as well. History Week will be launched at the State Library of NSW this Friday night, and the NSW Premier's History Awards for 2018 will also be announced (tickets here). Further reading: For more on the history of Sydney's hospitals, check out the Dictionary of Sydney content under the Hospitals subject heading here. Notes: * Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Allen & Unwin, 2009); Grace Karskens, ‘Convict Sydney in the Macquarie Era’, Humanities Australia , Number 2, 2011, pp. 31-41 ; Dr Fiona Starr, ‘How the ‘Sidney Slaughter House’ got its name’, Sydney Living Museums; RACP Pomegranate Health, Episode 19: Health, Disease and Death in the Early Colony, 30 January 2017 Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole! Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15 to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney. The Dictionary of Sydney has no ongoing operational funding and needs your help. Make a tax-deductible donation to the Dictionary of Sydney today!