General Practitioners   of Australia

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Life as a Doctor in the Early Colony

Dr William Redfern (1774-1833)

Background:     He was raised in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England. In 1797 he passed his examinations with the London Company of Surgeons, and jined the navy, commissioned as a surgeon's mate. He was working on board the H.M.S. Standard, when its crew mutinied. He was convicted of this charge and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment. After two years of imprisonment, he was transported (at his request) to the colony of NSW, arriving in 1802. In 1802 he was sent to work on Norfolk Island, whre he was granted a contional pardon. In 1803 he received a full pardon by Governor Philip King. He remained working on Norfolk island until 1808, at which time he returned to Sydney, having established a good medical reputation. He was appointed as assistant surgeon. The problem of having no documentary evidence of his qualifications was overcome by being examined by three prominent surgeons (Principal Surgeon Thomas Jamison; Surgeon of the New South Wales Corps, John Harris; and ssistant Surgeon to the Corps, William Bohan). This made Redfern the first person to receive Australian qualificationa as a medical practitioner. Later Governor Lachlan Macquarie ratified his appointment. The examination opened the way for others to be considered qualified to practice medicine in the colony. Those who failed this examination had their names published in the Sydney Gazette. They were forbidden to practuice mwedicine.

    It becomes difficult for us to envisage life as a doctor in those times (early 1800s). Redfern had been working in appalling conditions in the original Dawes Point Hospital, but later was able to move to the Sydney Hospital. He attended patients in the wards on a daily basis, military were on one side, convicts on the other. Nurses were often convicts appointed to the task and so the quality of their work was at times poor and unreliable. Thefts of stores was common and Redfern was required, by necessity, to take charge of all stock. Remember that there was, at this point in history, no knowledge of the cause of infections and no antisepsis. Infections were a common cause of morbidity and mortality. Smallpox was a major issue still and syphilis was a major cause for morbidity (icluding tertiary forms). Attending injuries would have been a daily task.
    Redfern, still employed (until 1819) by the Colonial Medical Service, held a daily outpatiebnt clinic for the convicts. Here he would have seen injuries and infections. These patients would have been heathy specimens, having been the ones to survive living in the hulks on the Thames and having survived the ordeals of transportation, however malnutrition and exposure to the elements and deprivation of most comforts would have seen them in a poor state. Rations for the convicts were typically salted beef, flour and sugar. In the earliest days of the colony, there was an absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, so scurvy was common. In the early 1800s, at least, this would have been rare as the farms and orchards were now established. In some locations, convicts were allowed to grow their own vegetables.

    In 1813 Willaim Redfern took on an apprentice, James Shears, who was therefore the first medical student in Australia's history. It also made Redfern the fisrt teacher of medicine in Ausstrlai. However Shears died the same year. Henry Cowper, son of the Rev. William Cowper, took his place. Redfern's task was to instruct him in all matters of medicine and surgery and to bring him to a suitable standard to pass his examinations.

    Redfern was able to run a private practice as well and rapidly became sought after as the best-liked doctor in the colony. He attended the Governors (Macarthur and Macquarie) and their families.

    Redfern was commissioned to investigate the disastrous mortality on board the Surry, General Hewitt and Three Bees in 1814. He made various recommendations regarding ventilation, nutrition, cleanliness and fumigation of the ships. he advised that the conicts be allowed some time in the sunshine on the decks and advised all ships to carry qualified surgeons. This made a significant difference to the outcome of the future convict voyages.

    Redfern resigned in 1819 from the Colonial Medical Service when he was passed over for the appointment of principal surgeon. He failed to obtain this position, not because of his abilities, nor because of lack of experience, but because of his convict background. Similarly he lost the position of Magistrate, which Governor Macquarie had given him following his resignation, because the next governor (Bathurst), did not approve of ex-convict being appointed to such positions.

    As was not uncommon for the early doctors, Redfern had interests outside of medicine. He owned a 40h property which later became the suburb of Redfern in Sydney. In 1818 he was granted 526h of land which he called Campbell Fields. He developed this to be one of the best farms in the colony. He later acquired lands at Cowra and Bathurst. Redfern became one of the founding directors of the Bank of NSW. He was an honourary member and committee member of the Benevolent Sociey. He was a member of the Aborigine's Institution.

As a committee member of the Benevolent Society, Redfern worked to set up and run the Society's hospital for the poor and disadvantaged.

William Redfern has been described as the father of Australian medicine1


1. Hull, G., From convicts to founding fathers—three notable Sydney doctors, J R Soc Med. 2001 Jul; 94(7): 358–361.

Ford, E., Redfern, William, Australian Dictionary of Biography, accessed 13/3/2016

Ford, E., The Life and Work of William Redfern, Annual Post - Graduate Oration, delivered on April 29, 1953, in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney.