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Paper no 59









List of papers







Australia's first hospital and the landscape of health and medical museums today

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Museums Australia Magazine Summer 2012 and reprinted with kind permission of Museums Australia


Valerie J. Griffiths, Caps and Veils: The Nursing History of Sydney Hospital Matrons and its Nurses 1788-1985 is available online and at selected Historic Houses Trust NSW museum gift shops (

In 2009, Elinor Wrobel threatened a hunger strike in defence of the Lucy Osborn-Nightingale Foundation Museum at Sydney Hospital. As curator of the museum, she harboured fears that its doors were about to be closed, its space reduced or its morbid anatomy collection transferred to another institution. Her photograph and the story of her protest appeared prominently in the Sydney Morning Herald. She was interviewed on talk-back radio. Questions were raised in the NSW Parliament. The NSW Branch of Museums Australia lent support with letters to the state government. But it was Wrobel who was the telling factor in forging a new agreement with authorities about the threatened anatomy collection and fresh thinking about the museum’s future.

Sydney Hospital

Elinor Wrobel has now sponsored a new book about the hospital, Caps and Veils: The Nursing History of Sydney Hospital Matrons and its Nurses 1788-1985. Compiled and written by Valerie Griffiths, this publication sets out to provide an historical record of the methods of training in Australia’s oldest hospital. The Sydney Hospital has its origins in tents set up a few days after the arrival of the First Fleet. A prefabricated portable structure of wood and copper later arrived with the Second Fleet, along with more than 200 convicts suffering from scurvy, dysentery and infectious diseases. In 1816, Governor Macquarie transformed these ‘pathetic, raw’ beginnings into the sturdier Rum Hospital on Macquarie Street, where the historic building still stands. Two surviving wings of the original building now form Parliament House and the Mint Museum.  

When hospital matron Bathsheba Ghost, an ex-convict, died in 1866, the Colonial Secretary Henry Parkes looked overseas for nurses to serve in the Sydney hospital and set up a training school there. He had been inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale and training initiatives underway in her name at London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. In March 1868 Lucy Osburn, a graduate of the London school, arrived in Sydney with five other nursing sisters from London to take charge. The Nightingale Wing opened in 1869 as their home, and over the next seventeen years, Osburn introduced the Nightingale system as the training standard in the colony’s hospitals.  

The leadership of the matrons who followed Lucy Osborn occupies most of this book. Their dedication and professionalism are evident from the honours and qualifications they accumulated. The fact that all of them were unmarried highlights another story about the history of women in Australia’s public service: married registered nurses were not accepted in the public hospital arena until the 1970s.

Details of the early training regimes are interposed with vignettes of the nurses and their patients. One famous probationary nurse was Miles Franklin, who lasted three weeks in January 1900. According to Jill Roe’s biography of Franklin, a sister in the hospital remembered her as an unusual applicant, who ‘arrived from the country dressed in a strange tartan outfit and told the matron she had an urge to write and thought a nurse’s training would give her something to write about’.  

Lucy Osborn-Nightingale Foundation Museum

This historical survey of a museum connected with Sydney Hospital underscores the important role of museums in amplifying the histories of organisations with which they are associated. Along with nearly 100 images from Sydney Hospital Archives and an honour roll of graduates, the list of sources for this narrative serves as a pathway to further exploration of Australia’s medical history.

Although it now houses a history dating back to 1788, the Sydney Hospital museum itself was not established until 1999, when NSW Premier Bob Carr signed a contract between South East Health Service, the hospital and the Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Foundation to set the museum up on the first floor of the Nightingale Wing. It opened in May 2001.  

The Florence Nightingale collection 1820-1910 and Lucy Osburn collection 1836-1891 are featured holdings. The anatomy collection, the Kanematsu Collection of Human Tissue Specimens, was at the centre of the dispute in 2009. Other holdings include the Sydney Hospital archives, artefacts and artworks, as well as material acquired over the years from medical staff and other donors

Health and medical museums

This historical overview of Sydney Hospital’s medical collections and museum provides an impetus for wider reflection. Most of us begin our lives in hospitals. Many of us will draw our last breath there. Investigating what happens to our minds and bodies in between is as fascinating as a Sherlock Holmes mystery. How many health and medical museums are there in Australia? And what are some of the considerations that will shape their future?

These museums are not covered as a breed in the National Museum of Australia’s online anthology of essays, Understanding Museums
: Australian Museums and Museology, a history of museums in Australia since the 1970s (eds. Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien; NMA June 2011 & October 2012). See <>.

The Guide to Health and Medicine Collections, Museums and Archives in Australia, published by Museum Australia’s Health and Medicine Museums division in 1999, listed 185 specialist collections in addition to more than 200 other collections containing health and medical material. 

Some collections or museums have long been hosted within universities. The 1996 national survey report on the university-museums sector, Cinderella Collections – reviewed elsewhere in this Magazine issue by Andrew Simpson[1] – identified 30 health and medical entities in Australian universities. The University of Sydney, as one such institution, today promotes a medical heritage trail involving 19 related museums, buildings, libraries, monuments and artworks distributed across its campus. The Museum of Human Diseases at the University of NSW is devoted to the study of infectious and non-infectious diseases.

In Victoria, the programs of the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne are indicative of research and educational activities that benefit both universities and the wider public. Viona Fung, in Museums Australia Magazine Autumn 2012,[2] wrote about the interface between the arts and the mind in her article on the new Dax Centre and gallery at Melbourne University (featuring the remarkable art collection formed through many years of clinical practice by Melbourne psychiatrist Eric Cunningham Dax).  

Substantial collections of diverse material relating to medical science and practice are consolidated today in major museums or sometimes attached to medical specialist bodies. For example, Museum Victoria has the internationally significant Commonwealth Serum Laboratories collection, medical and surgical equipment used by Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, and many other items.

In Sydney, the Australian Society of Anaesthetists’ Harry Daly Museum is devoted to the preservation, documentation and interpretation of the history of anaesthetic practice. The Society for the Preservation of the Artefacts of Surgery and Medicine’s museum is located in the grounds of the old Gladesville Hospital. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ History of Medicine Library (consolidated under this title in the 1980s) holds approximately 40,000 items covering all aspects of medical history, including a collection of antique medical instruments. 

One potent institution in the history of Australian medical museums and related collections has become somewhat detached in recent memory, especially concerning the dark record of collecting Indigenous human remains. The Australian Institute of Anatomy collections,
including Aboriginal human/ancestral remains once housed in the imposing Art Deco-related building that is now home to the National Film and Sound Archives, have been transferred to the National Museum of Australia. 

The social history potential as well as scientific importance of health and medical museums are emphasised by recent international developments. In 2006, Museum of London archaeologists excavated material from some 262 burials found in the grounds of the Royal London Hospital. They recovered body parts that later formed the basis of a current exhibition, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.  The exhibition (showing until April 2013) depicts aspects of ‘the heroic age of surgery’ and covers the notorious nineteenth-century trade in dead bodies. A surge in visitor numbers at London’s Wellcome Collection, devoted to the history of medicine and medical science, has prompted a £17.5 million plan to expand its facilities.

In the United States, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, with a proud track record of pioneering medical research and discoveries, is preparing to move into a redeveloped new building in downtown Chicago. Future visitor experiences will be enhanced through use of the latest technology and interactive mobile apps.  

In Australia, individual doctors, academics, volunteers and philanthropists have played an essential role in transforming artefacts in cupboards into consolidated collections in full-scale museums. The Sydney Hospital Museum is partially supported by a $3.5 million bequest from a former pathologist, the late Dr Patricia Hirst. The indomitable Elinor Wrobel, as a former graduate and professional nurse, has tenaciously led the Hospital’s museum as volunteer curator since 2001, while at the same time running the John Passmore Museum, which she set up a few years ago as a tribute to the Australian painter.  

Associated professional bodies in the medical field have emerged during the past two decades. The European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences was formed in 1984. It led to the establishment of the Medical Museums Association in the United States two years later.

In Australia however, despite the rich history of medical collections and museums, it has proved difficult to have a viable professional association of these bodies for collaborative or comparative work to be pursued nationally. A Health and Medicine Museums grouping within Museums Australia was active between 1991 and 2006. It continued for a while as the independent Collections of Health and the History of Medicine.  

In a digital world of converging interests, concerted action by health and medical museum professionals is needed now more than ever. Questions about metadata standards, duplicate effort and data redundancy invite a deeper exploration of developments and challenges. Research Data Australia (RDA) lists nearly 800 data sets and collections in the area of health and medical science. Trove, already populated with relevant information from RDA, libraries and commercial databases, is keen to improve its coverage and welcomes discussions with medical and health museums about exposing their collections to the national discovery service.  

A more thorough study of resources and future options would no doubt take into account government policies on the health sector and technology. Recordkeeping requirements, the preservation of body parts and networking of patient information carry thorny privacy and ethical considerations. The National Broadband Network has led to regional digital hubs that offer potential for new relationships between collections and health services. University collections may be linked to campus-wide information management practices for institutional repositories, libraries, archives and museums.

Is anyone else pursuing these lines of enquiry?

Citation for this text: Paul Bentley, Australia’s first hospital and the landscape of health and medical museums today’, Museums Australia Magazine, Vol. 21(2), Museums Australia, Canberra, Summer 2012, pp. 34–46

[1] Andrew Simpson, ‘Cinderella, fifteen years after the ball: Australia’s university museums reviewed’, Museums Australia Magazine, Vol. 21(2), Museums Australia, Canberra, Summer 2012, pp. 28-30.

[2] Viona Fung, The Evolution of The Dax Centre: Exploring the interface between the arts and the mind, Museums Australia Magazine, Vol. 20(3), Museums Australia, Canberra, Autumn 2011, pp.9–14.


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