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.
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.
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
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
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
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 donorsHealth and
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
a history of museums in Australia since the 1970s (eds. Des Griffin and
Leon Paroissien; NMA June 2011 & October 2012). See <http://nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/>.
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
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
– 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,
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,
Aboriginal human/ancestral remains
once housed in the imposing
Art Deco-related building that is now home to the National Film and
transferred to the National Museum of Australia.
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
Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.
(showing until April 2013)
‘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
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.
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
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
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.
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
‘Cinderella, fifteen years after the ball: Australia’s
university museums reviewed’, Museums Australia Magazine,
Vol. 21(2), Museums Australia, Canberra, Summer 2012, pp.
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.