Since the outbreak of the “mystery virus of unknown origin” in early 2020, there’s been a lot said about the state of our public health system. While roads and tunnels have caught the attention and some might say the imagination of government, it is the chronic underfunding of hospitals that has constantly been exposed in that time. It might seem patently obvious to you for me to say so now, but let’s face it, if you need a hospital these days it’s likely you’ll be taking your life in your hands.

Medical practices and medical practitioners have been around for as long as people have been getting sick and in ancient times there was little to distinguish the rational science of medicine from magic. It’s a long time since the tribal shaman handed out medical advice but after two years of pandemic during which we have heard calls from the now infamous suggestion that people try injecting bleach as a sort of general cure all, to dire predictions from the doctors of WHO forecasting the next global outbreak of pathogen, it’s getting harder all the time to remain objective.

One of the better known Doctors of WHO.

If you look back on the past at the 19th Century to see where we’ve come from, we find that some things that were once standard medical practices are now an anachronism. Bloodletting, which had existed since ancient times, was one thing that persisted well into the Century, the process supposed to rid the patient or should I say victim of impurities in the body. It was performed by a barber-surgeon, as distinct from the physician, and was almost without exception harmful to patients. This barbaric practice might now be a thing of the past but oddly enough it has been commemorated in a curious way by the red and white pole of the barbershop where you get your haircut, the white representative of bandages and the red of blood that once flowed freely under the barber’s ministrations.

Back then the law was far from clear about the credentials required to practice medicine and, bad haircuts aside, claims of extraordinary medical abilities by charlatans proliferated. A “medical degree” could mean just about anything, the only limitations being the owner’s ingenuity and overall resourcefulness. It might be a document picked up second hand in a pawn shop if a legitimate certificate, or forged and worth no more than the paper it was printed on if not. This was the era of the medical quack, the term originating from the middle-Dutch word, “quacksalver”, meaning somebody who boasts or brags about themselves and there were more quacks to be found than ducks on a lake. Quacks like “Professor” Jaeger of Vienna who reportedly made a fortune producing a product he called his “Soul Pills”, having made the discovery he said that the human soul was “not an immaterial spirit, but an odour emanating from the person.”

“This odour the professor has decoyed, bottled, and afterwards infused into “capillary pills”. (Singleton Argus, NSW, Feb, 1886)

Taken internally the pills were supposed to impart the swallower with the best moral and mental qualities, as distilled from others. Oh, if only life was that simple.

A list of potions available to the quack involve some conventional and other not so conventional items including something called “mummy”, supposedly ground up Egyptian mummies taken from their tombs, and “snake oil” made famous in the old West. The notorious snake oil salesman of parody is said to have started in the United States after a man called Clark Stanley sold liniment there which he said contained snake oil, “the cure for everything”. Clark’s oil in fact contained a mixture of beef fat, pepper and turpentine and perhaps unsurprisingly, contained about as much oil distilled from snakes as that other famous yet highly effective analgesic rub, Tiger Balm has ever contained tigers.

Here in Melbourne, from 1860 onwards a certain Dr Hailprim, a self-appointed Jewish Rabbi and occasional fortune teller, offered services to diggers heading to the goldfields that included an alleged ability to auger the location of the next gold strike. When the gold ran out, or very likely some time before, the doctor turned his attention to a chemist shop in Russell Street from where he sold patent medicines. His critics claimed these medicines consisted primarily of “dog fat” and furthermore that the source of the dog fat required a dog to be killed in a particularly strange manner and always at the very stroke of midnight.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

While this was an era famous for its quacks, not all medical men were necessarily cast from this quacking mould. An exceptional exception in Melbourne was the brother in law of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, Dr Godfrey Howitt. Dr Godfrey had arrived in Port Phillip in 1840 with his family and brothers in law and soon established a very successful medical career at the top end of Collins Street. Howitt was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of medicine as a serious scientific pursuit in Melbourne and was honorary physician of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum in 1847, a member of the University of Melbourne council from 1853, founder of the University Medical School in 1858 and vice president of the Philosophical Society of Victoria in 1854.

Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868. (Source: State Library Victoria)

Godfrey Howitt died in 1873 by which time it had become illegal to lay claim to spurious medical degrees, although there were always some still willing to try. As detailed in his 1978 book, “Kill or Cure”, Peter Phillips tells of a self-described “specialist physician renowned throughout the Colonies” who was brought before the courts in 1885. When asked if he was entitled to the letters MRCP he used after his name, the physician coolly explained that MRCP did not stand as some might assume for Member of the Royal College of Physicians, but those places he had previously worked – Malvern, Royal Park, Carlton and Preston. The case was dismissed, the judge presumably impressed by the audacity of the “physician” and, according to Phillips, sent out into society to collect as many more letters after his name as there were still places left for him to ply his quackery.

Picture of a hospital facility in the early 20th Century taken from the air.
An aerial photograph of the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg in 1929 with the Warringal village at top right of the picture. (Source: Picture by Charles Pratt, Airspy, State Library Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/20940

Melbourne in the 19th Century was an infinitely developing if infinitely unsewered metropolis. As an urban centre it had sprung into life in response to the gold rushes but beyond the grand public structures, by its unfettered growth it had become a hugely jerry built place which civic authorities struggled to organize and govern. Sickness was endemic in this age before antibiotics and at Heidelberg, Elizabeth Austin was to achieve immortality for her late husband’s name by donating money for a hospital for “incurables”. It’s said she did this after one of her own servants at Barwon Park near Winchelsea contracted tuberculosis and it was found that the only hospital accommodation then available for terminally ill patients from the serving classes was at the badly equipped prison hospital.

large stone house with drive in the country.
Elizabeth Austin’s home, Barwon Park at Winchelsea.

Tuberculosis, or Consumption as it was known, caused widespread public concern throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th but was only determined to be contagious as late as the 1880s. It is spread when a person with an active pulmonary infection coughs onto another. Two of Thomas Wragge’s daughters were to die of the disease, Jessie at Yallambie in 1910 and Caroline (Carrie) two years earlier at “The Trossachs”, in Odenwald Rd, Eaglemont. In Carrie’s case, it is thought the illness developed after she had earlier taken on the care of another consumptive family member, Louisa (Louie) Hearn.

“At that time admission to the Austin Hospital at Heidelberg was avoided as much as possible, because it was regarded as little more than a death house for patients with tuberculosis and cancer. To meet this need, Carrie and Frank took Louie into their home so Carrie could help her, even though she had two small children of her own to care for.” (Calder, Classing the Wool, p140)

The sight of face masks on our streets today might lead you to think that in some respects we haven’t gone that far and indeed have come full circle. Once again prevention has become the simplest form of cure and a bar of soap is the number one item you can put in any medical kit. In spite of this or maybe because of it, the subject still seems somehow to be open for debate.

Hand painted tiles displaying words "do not spit".
An old tiled sign on the walls of the underpass at Flinders St Station, Melbourne. A relic from a century old, public health campaign, the sign survived a recent refurbishment during another health scare.

The year before his 1996 death, Carl Sagan wrote of a foreboding he had of what he saw as a looming time, a time “when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide back into superstition and darkness.” (Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World, 1995)

I don’t know about you, but I’m off to the barbers. I want to get a haircut, pick up some medical advice and to see a man about a duck.

A duck perched on top of a chimney.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s