Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Aboriginal Medical Service

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Aboriginal Medical Service

In 1971, while conducting a home visit as field officers for the Aboriginal Legal Service, Gordon Briscoe and Shirley Smith met a man who was so sick he could not speak. The family had not called a doctor as they could not afford it. [1]

At the time, there was no universal health care scheme in Australia. Inadequate and overcrowded housing and poor nutrition were causing health problems among Aboriginal people that were rare in the mainstream community. The issue was compounded by the reluctance of Aboriginal people to access mainstream health services for fear of racism, or because of mistrust or an inability to pay. [2]

In June 1971, activists including Briscoe, Smith, Paul Coe, Dulcie Flower, Fred Hollows, Ross McKenna and John Russell decided to establish the Aboriginal Medical Service. [3] Inspired by the success of the Aboriginal Legal Service in providing free services to the Aboriginal community, the group applied for a government grant and opened the service in a shopfront in Regent Street, Redfern. Its structure mirrored the Aboriginal Legal Service, with prominent community members acting as field officers and white professionals donating their time. The service was controlled by Aboriginal people.

While the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs appeared committed to the service at first, the organisation struggled for secure funding during its first five years of operation. The department regularly delayed its assessment of funding applications, acquittals and payments, forcing the organisation to operate on bank overdrafts and donations from the community. [4] The centre was staffed by volunteers, and doctors brought their own equipment to use. Despite this struggle, the Aboriginal Medical Service provided all services free with the option to donate if the patient felt able.

The service employed a holistic approach to health care from the outset. Aboriginal health issues were viewed within the paradigm of Indigenous people's social, economic and political status in Australian society, and it was considered necessary to address this disadvantage in order to improve Aboriginal health. [5] The underlying agenda of the service was political in that it sought to enable Aboriginal people to control their own destinies.

In 1977 the service moved to newly-renovated premises in Turner Street, Redfern. A variety of specialist clinics were offered, as well as a general practice and dental clinic. The service also instigated a training program for Aboriginal health workers. [6]

The Aboriginal Medical Service has inspired Aboriginal communities nationwide to establish their own medical services, and there are now over 60 Aboriginal-controlled health services in New South Wales alone.


[1] G Briscoe, 'The Aboriginal Medical Service in Sydney' in B Hetzel, M Dobbin, L Lippmann, and E Eggleston (eds), Better Health for Aborigines?, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1974, p 167

[2] Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service 1971–1991, Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern, 1991, p 5

[3] Aboriginal Medical Service; Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service 1971–1991, Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern, 1991, p 5

[4] Gary Foley, 'The History of the Aboriginal Medical Service: A Study of Bureaucratic Obstruction', Identity, July 1975

[5] Peter A Khoury, 'Contested Rationalities: Aboriginal Organisations and the Australian State', PhD thesis, School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, 1996, p 228

[6] Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service 1971–1991, Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern, 1991 pp 13, 17