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Medical Sydney draws a crowd

What medical mysteries hide in the history of colonial New South Wales?


Recently we explored Sydney's medical mysteries in a program titled, Medical Sydney. This brand new edition to the Lifelong Learning series was a huge hit with both sessions selling out. 

If you missed it, don’t despair. The Library plans to run Medical Sydney again in 2018!

The Medical Sydney program followed a history of diseases like the plague and smallpox in New South Wales. It also looked at Indigenous medicine from the role of traditional healers to bush medicine. Participants also heard about the entry of women into the medical professions and the barriers they faced in the early days of being admitted to study.

A group of people looking at medical books on tables

Participants in the Medical Sydney program looking at materials on display

Medical mysteries, of course, featured heavily in the Medical Sydney program. One such mystery is the body snatching scandal of the early 1900s. Two students from the University of Sydney were found guilty of stealing two bodies from the Sydney Rum Hospital in order to extract their bones and use them for medical study. The University of Sydney was short on human bones at the time!

The nineteenth century fascination with spontaneous human combustion also rated a mention. This supernatural phenomenon was widely reported in Britain in the ninteenth century and is even referred to in Charles Dickens’ classic novel, Bleak House. It began to appear in articles published in Sydney newspapers in the 1800s and is another example of the medical mysteries unfolding in the New South Wales colony at this time.

Two people looking at a medical chest in a glass box

State Librarian, Dr John Vallance and Presenter, Jane Gibian with the Macquarie Family travelling medicine chest

As the icing on the cake of a very informative and entertaining program, participants in Medical Sydney were treated to a special viewing of the Macquarie Family Travelling Medicine Chest. This travelling chest came into the Library’s collection five years ago and is now one of our rarest and most valuable treasures. It is not known if the medicine chest belonged to Governor Lachlan Macquarie or his son but it was used in the Macquarie family as a travelling medicine chest to look after their health while moving around the colony. The Macqaurie Family Travelling Medicine Chest contains bottles of substances like camphorated oil and glycerine to be used for treating symptoms of illness. It is an example of campaign-style furniture, designed for easy packing and storage while travelling.

Thank you to all who attended the Medical Sydney program and made it a great success. It is just one of the Lifelong Learning talks the Library offers.

Find out more about Lifelong Learning programs here.

Four people standing behind a table with medical books on it

The presenters of Medical Sydney (left to right): Glenda Veitch, Southnary Tan, Jane Gibian and Anne Reddacliff