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Medical moments on the diggings

"The calling in of a real medical man, even at once qualified and a gentleman is a serious infliction. They do nothing under a pound a visit, and a pound a mile, which for an illness of any length is certain ruin to many a poor digger."

From the very start of the gold rushes, the ‘medical’ profession - represented by ‘doctors’ and druggists - had a dubious reputation. Charlatans abounded. And soon, the industry was in need of some serious public relations magic.

Druggists and shopkeepers frequently passed themselves off as trained medical practitioners, preying on the ignorance of diggers desperate for a cure to their ailment. Remedies were also extremely expensive – William Howitt observing that the cost of a remedy for a bruise was "twelve times the English price".

The Invalid Digger by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

‘Real’ doctors were very expensive, As a result, the vast majority of diggers relied heavily on ‘guaranteed’ remedies concocted by such noble fellows as Professor Holloway. Manufacturer of the famous "Holloway’s Pills and Ointments", many diggers swore blind that they cured everything from "ringworm, bad legs, bad breasts, burns, bunions, chilblains, corns, cancers to elephantitis, gout, piles, rheumatism, tumours, ulcers and wounds"!

If Holloway’s pills and ointments didn’t provide the promised cure, and a hospital stay was required, the prospects weren't necessarily any better. Hospitals were often no more than a makeshift collection of tents, and were consistently occupied with diggers suffering the consequences of gold fields life – poor sanitation, lack of water, lack of fresh vegetables, damp, and the ever-present dust that permeated everything and everybody. Conditions in these ‘hospitals’ were dire, as graphically depicted by a nurse from Coolgardie in Western Australia:

"The supply of surgical instruments was short, and carpenters tools, sterilized (in a sort of a way) sometimes saved the situation. An ordinary brace-and-bit was in great demand for boring holes into bones, which had to be wired together. But, sad to say, in spite of all our efforts and care, the death rate was very high..."

In addition to the usual array of mining injuries that filled hospitals to overflowing, there was another side to life on the gold fields that was rarely recorded by the scribes of the day: that of "the street of the scarlet stain".

"It hurts me to say that an entirely true picture of this wonderful mining centre (Coolgardie) must include a reference to one street on the outskirts of the town ... No description of this street is necessary, beyond the statement that it was the street of 'Maisons Tolerees'. The keeping of a certain number of these ‘houses’ was allowed by law, in spite of much pressure from public opinion ... The medical examinations did not keep a check on the awful disease which demanded such a heavy toll. These women were frequently in hospital, brought in by their ‘bosses’. A few of these unfortunates were Australian but most were French and Japanese. The special ward at the hospital for this kind of disease was always full, with special orderlies in attendance. There were several cases of suicide, even among our own men friends, when they realised their hopeless condition, for the cures now used successfully were unknown then. The kindly reason given in the inquest on these cases was always ‘insomnia’".

The medical profession was further challenged in the 1880s by an epidemic of smallpox in Sydney that lasted from June 1881 until January 1882. In the widespread panic that ensued, parents rushed their children to hospitals to be vaccinated, the government quarantined people believed to have had contact with the disease and burnt down or covered with disinfectant premises believed to have housed the victims. Unfortunately for the local Chinese community, this was a time when racial prejudice came to the fore. The State Government declared China and all its ports an infected area. Ships arriving with Chinese passengers were quarantined immediately. The foundation for this prejudice was, however, tenuous, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1887:

"Yesterday morning a Chinaman was observed purchasing some linseed meal, and although it is difficult to trace any connection between linseed meal and smallpox, the circumstance of a Chinaman purchasing linseed meal was considered of sufficient importance for it to be reported to the police."

As the 1880s progressed, the number of unqualified medical practitioners (faith healers, herbalists, clairvoyants, electropathists – but not druggists) outnumbered legally qualified doctors by three to one.

Fortunately, this state of affairs did not last long. The depression of the 1890s led many governments to develop a higher social awareness and place more emphasis on funding and training for the legitimate medical profession. This, in turn, increased health standards across the country by the turn of the century.


By Nicole Grant


Robyn Annear Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, Text Publishing Melbourne 1999.

Frank Crowley, Colonial Australia Volume 2 1841-74, A Documentary History of Australia

A.S Garnsey, Scarlet Pillows: An Australian Nurse’s Tales of Long Ago Melbourne 1950.

William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.


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