Dr William Wyatt

[Adapted from John Jose’s article in the RAH Staff Newsletter, December 2005]

Dr William Wyatt (1804-1886) – surgeon, administrator, landowner, public servant and philanthropist – was a man of many parts, with surgery not featuring highly in his achievements, although he is reported to have performed the first amputation of a leg in the young Colony of South Australia. He is the person after whom the Royal Adelaide Hospital’s Foundation Day Oration is named.

Dr Wyatt was born in Plymouth, Devon, England, in 1804, the son of gentleman Richard Wyatt. He was apprenticed to a Plymouth surgeon named Thomas Stewart and became a Licentiate of the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries in London, and surgeon of a large dispensary. In 1828 he was admitted to Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and began private practice in Plymouth where he first displayed his broader interests by finding time to become curator of the museum of the Literary and Scientific Institution, and to study geology and other sciences related to medicine.

In 1836 he unsuccessfully applied for a medical post in the new colony of South Australia, but despite this rejection he was determined to emigrate, and did so with his wife on the John Renwick. He arrived in Adelaide in February 1837. Wyatt soon entered into the life of the young colony, and his public appointments and philanthropic interests began to accumulate. In 1837 he was appointed the third Protector of Aborigines, City Coroner and Colonial Magistrate. The following year he was made a Justice of the Peace, joined the Local School Society, and helped found the short-lived South Australian Club. In the 1840s he became a founding member of the Medical Board and four years later its secretary, a post he held until his death. He helped clear the debts owed by the Trinity Church, was a member of the Immigrants Welcome Committee, became a director of the abortive Colonial Railway Company and was elected one of the first proprietors of the Collegiate School of St. Peter where his name is remembered today in the name of a house and an annual scholarship. In the 1850s he played a leading part in the South Australian Institute, the Acclimatisation Society, the Botanic Gardens, the Royal Society and the Society of Arts.

Dr Wyatt had little connection with clinical surgery in South Australia but was deeply involved in the medical administration of the day. Wyatt was appointed as one of three Honorary Medical Officers to the first Adelaide Hospital opened on its present site in 1841, but resigned two years later after disagreement over management policies. Nevertheless, when the Medical Board was set up in 1844, Wyatt was a member. In 1864 he was appointed chairman of a Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate complaints and allegations against the hospital, namely that people who could afford to pay the 21 shillings per week accommodation fee were getting in for free. This led to the appointment of a new Board of Management for the Adelaide Hospital by Act of Parliament in 1867, with Wyatt as a member. He became chairman in 1870 and remained in the chair until his death in 1886.

Dr Wyatt died in Adelaide on 10th June, 1886, leaving an estate of 50,000 pounds largely from land holdings. He left his wife well provided for, and various charities and legacies were specified in his will. The greater part of his city and suburban properties however was left to the Wyatt Benevolent Institution to “benefit persons above the working class who may be in poor or reduced circumstances.”

He remained a public spirited philanthropist to the end.