The Colonial Infirmary – Adelaide’s First ‘Hospital’

Part 1: 1837 – 1840

South Australia was established as a free settler colony, one which could be self-sufficient from the British crown, however, in the high number of settlers, there was little to no thought of including doctors and trained medical professionals.

The new settlement was proclaimed on 28 December 1836 and Dr Thomas Young Cotter, the first colonial doctor arrived in January 1837. Upon his arrival, Dr Cotter encountered three ill men with no arrangements for care or food, sheltering underneath an old sail. Unintentionally making the raggedy old sail the first hospital in South Australia.

Dr Cotter appealed to the Governor John Hindmarsh for a better shelter that was not a non-waterproof sail to act as the hospital. Hindmarsh and other officials were sympathetic but resources, both financial and material were so limited that the best they could do was rent a mud hut, and so the Colonial Infirmary came to being.

Dr Thomas Young Cotter

The hut measuring 5.5m x 3.5m was located near where the Holy Trinity Church on North Terrace stands today. Not long after, the hut proved to be uninhabitable, and the infirmary was moved to a new, marginally better cottage.

The small, thatched cottage was purchased from Captain Robert Hill for £31 to act as the new (and second) Colonial Infirmary as well as general dispensary. It was also located on North Terrace, where the University of South Australia Yungondi Building stands today. On 13 July 1837 the first 4 patients arrived. There were no beds available until later when 3 double bedsteads were borrowed. A limited number of pots, pans, blankets and coats were provided by the colonial storekeeper, but lighting was by means of a single candle which had to purchased by patients.

In 1838 the first board of management was appointed. It drew up regulations for management and control of the infirmary. Some of these regulations included that patients were required to pay 7 shillings a week for medicine and medical attention as well as 14 shillings a week for nursing, rations and medical comforts. The press was highly critical of these new regulations in relation to the conditions which the patients had to endure.

Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen’s Land Gazette, Friday 25 October 1839, page 4

By the end of 1839, the infirmary abandoned its location and cottage because of its inadequacies and moved to a wooden building located on West Terrace. Although the building was an improvement from the previous two, it was by the Colonial Infirmaries third move that there was a realisation of the need for a proper purpose-built hospital for South Australia.

To be continued…

Written by Anna Grigoriev, CALHN Health Museum