The Humble Bedpan

When the first white settlers arrived in Australia, in their possession was the humble bedpan. Potteries soon began to be established and amongst the first items made were bedpans. Throughout nursing and medical history, the bedpan has played its part.

The bedpan was there when Florey was experimenting with penicillin (he used it as a temporary petri dish to collect the mould); the bedpan is part of the memories of many a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) worker during WWII and it was there when Mrs Smith down the road, broke both her legs and was in traction in hospital for two weeks. Today, you can not walk through a ward at either The Queen Elizabeth Hospital or Royal Adelaide Hospital without coming across either a cardboard or plastic bedpan.

Bedpans come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but there are two main shapes used in Australia. They are:
Saddle Pan or Pontoon Bedpan: the classic bedpan that has rolled edges so that it feels like an ordinary toilet seat;

Cardboard bed pan coated with beeswax. Will hold liquid for several hours 2005

Fracture or slipper bedpan: shaped like a large dust pan and is ideal for patients who cannot move their hip joints easily.

Earthenware slipper bedpan Ca 1950

Below are a selection of bedpans from the Health Museum’s collection:

Enamel Bedpan: This bedpan originally belonged to the Ingleby family, five women over three generations who trained at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Enamel bedpans had the tendency to chip easily and thus harbour bacteria. By the late1930s, enamel bed pans were quickly being replaced by stainless steel.

Ca 1900

Stainless Steel Bedpan: It is easy to clean, durable and bacteria has only has a small likelihood of survival. This bed pan was used as a cricket trophy for staff at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Engraving reads: “16-1-83 T.Q.E.H. Annual Cricket Match, Wards Wobblies V Hanlons No Hopers, 1983 Wards Wobblies”. This was a typical bed pan used at TQEH from 1950s through to the 1990s.


Granite Ware Bedpan: Known for its speckled appearance, granite ware is made by fusing porcelain to a steel core at very high temperatures. The steel provides a strong vessel and the porcelain becomes non-stick, making it ideal for bedpans, although they can be heavy. This bedpan belonged to Dr Roger Angove, who had a long association with the Royal Adelaide Hospital (1946-1985).

Ca 1950

One of the worst experiences I had was with a man with a fractured leg. He wanted a bedpan and of course they were the old type, heavy china pans. I had never given anyone a bedpan. I wasn’t even shown how. My own common sense should have told me what to do. It seemed to me that it was important that the receiving area was in the right place, but I was trying to put it in backwards!”

Lynley Dohnt (1898 – 1990), Royal Adelaide Hospital
Four nurses (3 are wearing protective gowns) are cleaning the enamel bed pans and chamber pots outside one of the outdoor patients’ sleeping quarters at the Consumptive Home and Cancer Block – Adelaide Hospital. This was a daily chore. From left to right: Nurses D. Howard, J. Campbell, F. Pfitzner. In front: J. Cameron – 1930.

By Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum