Laying The Foundation – Adelaide’s First Purpose-built Hospital

Part 2: 1841 – 1856

With the evident need to provide the state with a new hospital, Governor Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler had intended that the fees to build the new purpose-built hospital could be crowd funded. But the public did not respond generously, and instead, public funds were used to finance the new hospital and cost Gawler his reputation. As a result, the cost of building a new medical institution is now borne by the South Australian government.

The new site chosen for the new building, The Adelaide Hospital, was in the grounds of where the Botanic Garden stands today, on the corner of North Terrace and Hackney Road. Although, while planning the layout of the city, Colonel William Light intended for the new hospital to be located further south of the Botanic Garden.

1837 City of Adelaide Plan by Colonel William Light. Circled is where Light had intended for the hospital to go.

The Foundation Stone, made from stone quarried behind Government House, was laid on 15 July 1840, and The Adelaide Hospital, South Australia’s first purpose-built hospital, entered service on 25 January 1841. It was a single storey building made from brick and overlapping metal sheets for a roof.

Original Foundation Stone slate.

The new hospital could hold 30 beds in three wards: twelve for medical patients, twelve for surgical patients and six for females, however, an additional 10 beds could also be added. The beds were lined up against the wall, leaving little privacy for patients. Facilities included two rooms for staff and a central room which acted as both a dining room and an operating theatre. However, there was no kitchen. The board did agree to provide a small place for food and culinary materials but declined further requests due to expense.

Management of the hospital was plagued with difficulty from the outset. There was conflict between the board and medical staff, as well as financial problems. A year would go by before the hospital contractor would receive his full payment. Patients were charged a fee to stay at the hospital but were also required to assist with work in the wards.

Adelaide’s first purpose-built hospital. Drawing by Samuel Thomas Gill.

At the time of opening Adelaide’s first hospital, there were no trained nurses. Female attendants had to rely on instinct, experience, and common sense.

It was hoped that the new Adelaide Hospital would meet the demands of the community for many years to come. However, by 1849, less than 10 years into its establishment, and due to an influx of migrant arrivals in the 1840s, the hospital was once again inadequate to meet the needs of a state with a growing population.

To be continued…

Written by Anna Grigoriev, CALHN Health Museum