The Royal Adelaide Hospital

Pamela Joy Spry, Emeritus Director of Nursing, Royal Adelaide Hospital

This inaugural address was delivered at the first Foundation Day Ceremony held at Royal Adelaide Hospital on 11 July, 1979.

In A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital written by J Estcourt Hughes, he states that the physical structure of an institution is important, but a hospital is more than bricks and mortar, and it is the people who work in it, who give it quality and tradition.

Today we gather to commemorate the founding of Royal Adelaide Hospital.  Royal Adelaide Hospital has a proud history and you the staff are a part of its history.  It is my privilege to recount for you events which took place many years ago.  These events were the foundation on which the present is built.

In 1837 the first patients of the settlement of South Australia were accommodated, under the care of Dr T Cotter, in a mud hut situated close to the site where the Holy Trinity Church now stands.

It was called the Colonial Infirmary and was established with great difficulty as South Australia spent its early years under the blight of extreme financial stringency.  One can only reflect in today’s circumstances that in this respect history repeats itself.

In May, 1837, a small thatched cottage was purchased for use as a general dispensary and infirmary.  This was situated near what is now the Hotel Centralia on North Terrace.  It was purchased for £71.3.9 and was in those days considered extravagant.

In December, 1838, the first board of management of the infirmary was appointed.  In 1839 the cottage was abandoned and the infirmary moved to a wooden building in the West Parklands north of where the old Bureau of Meteorology stood.  Here it stayed until the opening of the first Adelaide Hospital in 1841 near Hackney Road.

Governor George Gawler, the second governor of South Australia, saw the need for proper hospital accommodation.  Money was raised from various sources. One source, suggested by Dr T Litchfield, Inspector of Hospitals, was to breed leeches, in the Botanic Gardens, for sale.

At a cost of £2,260 the contract to build the first Adelaide hospital was let to a Mr Benjamin Fuller.  The foundation stone was laid by Governor Gawler on 15 July, 1840, and the hospital was ready to receive patients in January, 1841.  It had thirty beds stated as twelve for medical patients, twelve for surgical patients and six for females.  It was built of brick and contained a room about sixteen feet square which acted as reception area, dining room, board room and operating theatre.  This room led to the wards but there was no kitchen – all cooking was done in the wards.  Nevertheless, it was considered to be one of the best furnished and most substantial buildings in the city.

The number of patients rose to 410 by 1850.

The hospital was transferred to its present site in 1856 with Dr William Gosse as colonial surgeon and Mrs J Briggs as matron supported by her husband as dispenser.  Since that time the hospital has been rebuilt twice.  Our present hospital is the fourth; the last major building, the Nurses’ Residential Wing, being occupied in 1969.To my relief the practice of naming nurses’ homes after matrons has been discontinued.

The history of one of the nurses’ homes is a saga of errors.  It was completed in 1911. It was remarkable for two things.  It was not provided with bathrooms or toilets. They had to be added later and can be seen today jutting out at the back of the Margaret Graham Home.  It was also planned that it should have a swimming pool in the basement.  The area was of no use because the water outlet was forgotten.  It now resounds to the noise of interns’ parties, revue auditions and rehearsals.

Much of the history of the Adelaide hospital is ‘wrapped in obscurity’ although it is known that staff lived by many rules and regulations which we would find strange today.  Here is an example of the thinking in 1887 as to how nurses should act

  • each nurse on day duty will report at 7 am and leave at 8 pm except on the Sabbath on which day you will be off from 12 noon to 2 pm
  • graduate students in good standing with the matron will be given an evening off a week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if you regularly go to church
  • each nurse should lay aside from each pay day a goodly sum from her earnings for her benefits in her declining years so she will not become a burden
  • any nurse who smokes, uses liquor in any form, gets her hair done in a beauty shop or frequents dance halls will give the matron good cause to suspect her worth, intentions and integrity
  • the nurse who performs her labours, serves her patients and doctors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase by the hospital administration of five pennies a day providing there are no hospital debts that are outstanding

In the regulations under the Hospital Act it also states that the matron will give the whole of her time to the institution!

The Royal prefix was granted in 1939 by Proclamation of His Excellency the Governor of the State of South Australia and in 1967, the Kings of Arms in London approved the grant of arms to the hospital with the motto, To Succour and to Teach.

Thus stands part of the history of Royal Adelaide Hospital.  It began as a charity hospital and progressed to a large, busy, very complex teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Adelaide and Sturt College of Advanced Education, noted for excellence in the care of the sick and in the teaching of the many professions within its walls.  It has a proud tradition.  Has it a soul?

The soul of the hospital is embodied in the people who work in it.

To quote the words of the board of management in 1895, ‘Absolute harmony and good feeling amongst the staff are pre-eminently indispensable in a hospital and without them its beneficient purposes must suffer.’  The purpose of the hospital is ‘service, teaching and research’.  The major objective is to satisfy the needs of patients for care and treatment.  It is a team effort.  All staff members participate in the delivery of this care and treatment; the doctors, the physiotherapists, the social workers, the dieticians and caterers, the domestics, the porters, the clerks, the nurses and many others.  We are all dependent on each other.  In our hands lies the future and the reputation of Royal Adelaide Hospital.

On this anniversary of the foundation of Royal Adelaide Hospital let us remember the past but let us also commit ourselves to carrying on its tradition with honour.  Let us ‘serve and teach’ with excellence in all things.