Hope, History and the Royal Adelaide Hospital

Peter Cahalan, Director, History Trust of South Australia

This address was delivered at the twelfth Foundation Day Address Ceremony held at Royal Adelaide Hospital on 15 July, 1990. It was an occasion of the sesquicentenary celebration of Royal Adelaide Hospital.

A celebration such as this might for many of you here seem a pleasant occasion – but not an important one.

It is not always easy to see how understanding and celebrating our past can help us with our here-and-now concerns and with our plans for the future.

There are several reasons for this. First, our natural, ingrained sense of our own past is often not linked very well to a more formally inculcated sense of history!

And second, history – as the story of the past – is always shaped by storytellers. South Australia has been, until recently, bereft of its own storytellers. Instead, we have has our story woven as simply a minor strand in the general history of Australia.

Perhaps my first point about the distinction between a sense of the past and a sense of history strikes you as odd. Let me explain it by being autobiographical. I grew up in Port Pirie in a flat, swampy, sulphur-fumed town. It wasn’t a rich community and its vast swathes of corrugated iron fencing and housing were rusting and battered, I grew up in a home with two grandparents and two great uncles who died off one by one by the time I was ten. They – like many other older people I met – were bruised survivors of tough times. Further, there was no strong storyteller in my clan to regale me with cheerful gusto with stories about their past. No one handed on to me a sense that I had a proud past, that my tribe were makers of history and not its passive victims.

Every one of you here today would have grown up shaped as children by natural forces in your environment which sorted you out into makers or victims of history, as people who intuitively liked their own past or tried to flee from it.

I fled from my environment into history. I began a love affair with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in primary school, found England at high school, Europe at university and Australia when I – as a reluctant conscript – was given its history to teach as a young tutor at the University of Adelaide. I went abroad to Canada and Europe to understand Australian history the better by learning about their past.

Studying in Canada taught me about regional differences in a similar society.

Observing other Australians abroad brought home to me that I was not just an Australian but a South Australian Australian.

Finally, in these last few years as a gather of three young children, I have turned back to my surviving parent to ask her – for the first time with real interest – to tell her story and my early story so that I can understand better who I am and what I am passing on to my children.

Thus, it has been only very belatedly that history as I learned it and the past as I intuitively encountered it have come together. I wonder how true this experience is for many of you here today.

One reason for this separation between my own inheritance on the one hand and history on the other was that there was initially nothing in my culture to affirm the wider richness of my society. We had a few local tellers of stories then – whether writers, poets or historians. History then meant Britain.

In the past thirty years a healthy school of Australian history has sprouted. But this Australian history is often virtually little more than the regional history of New South Wales and Victoria dressed up to cover the whole continent.

Many a book turns out to be overwhelmingly Victorian and New South Welsh in content. And not only in content. In what they select as the important shaping forces in our history, historians of Australia reflect their regional bias. Look at this list

  • convicts and the convict system
  • a strong Irish minority
  • the impact of gold rushes and the independently minded people they brought to our shores
  • the bitter post-gold rush land wars which left many small people dispossessed and disgruntled
  • the strong male ethos of mateship forged first in the convict gangs then the goldfield and finally shearing sheds.

There were no land wars here – mainly because the rich snapped up the best land early and the bitter legacy of class division which led many small settlers to abet such bushrangers as the Kelly gang was absent here.

Finally, this was not a strong male culture. As a result of conscious governmental policy, the sex ratio stayed remarkably equal. Not the shearing shed nor the mining camp filled with men remote from a wider society, but the family farm – this was the characteristic social institution in nineteenth-century South Australia.

Out of all these and other factors – including the strong early recruitment of settlers from southern and south west England – came a society less male-orientated, more family focussed, more religious in a protestant sense, less anti-British and with a reduced sense of class antagonism than other places.

It is also a community that knows in its bones that it won’t ever be quite the new Eden its founders hoped for. If anyone wants to argue that communities learn little from the past, just put to them the proposition that South Australia will be the economic hub of Australia in ten years’ time. The person who argued that after all our experience so far would be brave indeed.

Today, of course, we celebrate not South Australia but one of the oldest and most important institutions. The Royal Adelaide Hospital is a mirror of it wider society in a number of ways. Let me just mention three.

First, it reflects a tradition of excellence in health service. One of the great triumphs of nineteenth century Australian history was the superb care of passengers on the long voyage from Europe. Compare the dreadful conditions which often prevailed on the short Atlantic run to North America with the Australian record and the Australian colonies in general come out well. South Australia from about the established careful monitoring of shipboard conditions. This was for largely self-interested reasons.

The colonisation commissioners did it to ensure a continuing flow of emigrants otherwise deterred by the length of the voyage. But we can say that health care became part of the plan of things in South Australia very early indeed.

Second, the hospital’s story shows how the State was in so many ways pulled into caring for citizens despite intentions to the contrary. Governor Gawler hoped the public would underwrite the care of the sick when he established the hospital. But the South Australian community has never been affluent and certainly was not in 1840. So the State was compelled to shoulder the vast part of the burden. This tradition was established earlier here than in many societies. I think we can assume that the Royal Adelaide Hospital knows from its past that it is always likely to be overwhelmingly dependent on State support for its operations.

Finally, the hospital reflects a tradition of centralisation which was established from the beginning here. Adelaide from the earliest days nominated the colony. And Adelaide’s central institutions for long had no serious rivals. The Royal Adelaide Hospital has been a nursery for the nurture of an entire hospital service spanning the State. Until recently, the medical workers of South Australia gained much of their training directly via the hospital or under people who trained in it.

I simply pointed to these three aspects of the Royal Adelaide Hospital as it relates to wider South Australian history. There are many more of course. But it is not for me to speak of them here.

of all the nonaboriginal South Australians who ever lived, over half are alive today

Dr Philip Woodruff

The title of Dr Philip Woodruff’s history of health in South Australia some years ago struck me with great force – Two Million South Australians. As he points out, of all the nonaboriginal South Australians who ever lived, over half are alive today.

There is a case for saying that medieval English history is the particular province of medieval historians. But that can hardly be said of our own history. There are few formally trained historians in South Australia but there are one and a half million living repositories of information about and views of what has happened in this part of the world.

As I look around today, it strikes me that in this room are people whose memories – formed both by their own experience and by the folklore of the hospital when they started there – cover almost half of the 150 years of the hospital’s history.

So history is no longer something we see happening somewhere else. Indeed, happily South Australians have over the past several decades become mightily interested in their own past. In 1960 there were about fifteen museums and historical societies in this State. Today there are about 290. There has been a veritable history boom. The establishment of the hospital’s own Heritage and History Committee in 1981 was one facet of that great social movement. Today is a day to congratulate them on their work. And it is a day to remind everyone that, just as health is not something which is dealt with in hospitals but is the result of 101 daily decisions by a million and a half South Australians, so the history of the Royal Adelaide Hospital is not something to be deemed the province of a small group of dedicated people.

I urge those of you who are living archives of hospital history to record your memories.

I urge all of you to look from time to time beyond the urgent day-to-day crises which confront any major hospital these days. I urge you to occasionally look back into the story of your own institution for guidance, for a source of hope, as you shape its future. Some wonderful people have gone before you. Some great mistakes have been made. Some great achievements have been recorded. Many others have been lost to time and are awaiting recovery. Certain it is that, if only you turn over the stone of history, you will find the hospital has been a much bigger anthill than you could ever have imagined.

And so, in conclusion, I hope that I have reminded you that this celebration of 150 years of the Royal Adelaide Hospital is not just a pleasant occasion but an important one. May God bless all who work at and care about the Royal Adelaide Hospital as it is, as it has been and as it is to be.