The Royal Melbourne Hospital - Celebrating 165 years of caring

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  Melbourne's first public hospital

A short history of The Royal Melbourne Hospital


First hospital building
in the 1850s.

The first public hospital in Melbourne had its humble beginnings in a cottage in the late 1830s. Prior to this there were only government and military hospitals in the settlement. Whilst free settlers were sometimes treated in these hospitals, a lack of accommodation and resources made the need for a public hospital an ever increasing issue.

In 1842, John Pascoe Fawkner lent a two-storey building with 20 beds, and a separate room for outpatients, as temporary hospital premises. However, it was not long before the rapidly growing community needed a central, general hospital.

La Trobe leads lobbying

On 1 March 1841, a group of influential citizens, headed by Charles La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, who later became the hospital's President in 1847 and 1850-51, called for a public meeting to discuss the urgent need for an enlarged public hospital. At this meeting a provisional committee was formed, with the aim to raise 800 pounds for a building fund. A year later only 300 pounds had been collected.

In 1845, after two previous unsuccessful applications, the Committee was able to claim a Government subsidy of 1000 pounds for the building of the hospital. At this time the Government also granted a site for the hospital. Four years later, on 20 March 1846, the foundation stone of the Melbourne Hospital was laid by the Mayor of Melbourne James Palmer, on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets. Palmer, a surgeon, businessman and politician, had arrived in Australia in 1840. He served as Mayor of Melbourne in 1845-46 and as a member of the Hospital's Committee of Management, including its President, from its inception in 1866 until his death in 1871.

Doors open to the public

    Men's casualty, c. 1900
On 15 March 1848, the new hospital opened its doors to the public. Initially it had only 10 beds but by the end of the year this had been increased to 20. In its first year 89 patients were admitted, of whom 24 died, including two who died before being duly admitted. A further 98 people were treated as outpatients. Disbursements for the year were 576 pounds and receipts were 1016 pounds, making an end of year surplus of 439 pounds.

The first medical honoraries were physicians G Howitt, A O'Mullane and EC Hobson and surgeons DJ Thomas, AFA Greeves and WH Campbell. Hobson, who died before taking office, was subsequently replaced by the Coroner WB Wilmot. These doctors were elected on 15 July 1847 by subscribers who had contributed at least one pound to the new hospital.

Elections for medical staff were held every four years amongst intense competition. Candidates solicited votes via the Press, with handbills, at clubs and even through door-to-door canvassing. Voting was held at the Athenaeum, where how-to-vote cards were issued and bookmakers were present. This method of election of medical staff continued until 1910.

In 1852, the first Resident Medical Officer, Dr RC Graves, was appointed. Also in 1852, in response to the great influx of people to the Victorian goldfields, the hospital erected a temporary wooden building of 28 beds for fever patients. This brought the total number of beds to 104.

In 1854, a central block was added, and in 1857 the western block followed. In 1861 came the Outpatient department, dispensary, and another ward, and in 1867 the two eastern pavilions were built. Beds then numbered about 300.

Over the years that followed, many eminent medical people worked at the hospital. The hospital also undertook other important functions, namely the training of medical students (1864), nurses (1890), and later physiotherapists, social workers (almoners), dietitians, speech therapists and others.

In 1881, the first Medical Superintendent, Dr LHL Miller, was appointed, and in 1885 the first special department of the hospital, the Department of Skin Diseases, was established for outpatients.

In 1889, the Hospital Committee appointed Isabella Rathie the first Lady Superintendent of Nursing, and in 1892, the first graduates of the nurses' training school received their certificates. In 1894, EH Embley, the hospital's first Anaesthetist, was appointed.

Overcrowding reaches crisis point

During this time, rapid strides had been made in medicine and surgery. The hospital became the leading teaching institute for medical students, and was served by a team of dedicated doctors and a skilled nursing staff.

However, despite the high standard of patient care achieved by the hospital, the actual buildings and facilities were inadequate, accommodation had reached a crisis point, and the building itself was condemned by a Royal Commission in 1892.

The Commission recommended that the old site should be abandoned and a new hospital built at Parkville. In addition, since the establishment of the University of Melbourne in 1855, and particularly the Medical School in 1862, there had been constant calls for the hospital to be moved in closer proximity to the University.

       Early operating theatre.

Various suggestions concerning the location of a new hospital were put forward. In 1907, WL Baillieu and Charles Jeffries, two of the members of the Hospital's Committee of Management, suggested that: the hospital should be moved to the market site in Parkville; the market move to a more distant and cheaper site; the old hospital site be sold to the City Council as the site for a new Town Hall; and the old Town Hall be demolished and the site be sold to commerce.

Another suggestion was that the hospital be moved to a 12-acre site in the Domain. This last suggestion was popular, with the notable exception of the Trustees of the Edward Wilson (of the Argus) Trust. They had promised a large sum of money for the rebuilding on the condition that the hospital be rebuilt on the old site unless, within six months, a new site was acquired and approved by the Trust.

Hospital ward in the 1920s.

'New' hospital opens

Arguments over a new hospital site were settled in 1908 when the decision was made to rebuild on the old hospital site. Six months of effort to secure a site at Parkville had failed. The Argus Trust provided 120,000 pounds to finance the rebuilding and on 23 March 1912 the foundation stone for the new hospital was laid. On 22 July 1913 the new hospital was opened. With four operating theatres, electric lifts, x-ray equipment, an ophthalmic and other specialised departments, the hospital could now provide more efficient patient care.

In 1910, Jane Bell had left the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to take up her appointment as the hospital's Lady Superintendent of Nursing.

Through her outstanding ability and broad knowledge of hospital administration and teaching, she established a new era in nursing administration and continued to do so for the next 24 years until her retirement in 1934.

Firsts for the Melbourne Hospital included the appointment of a Sister Tutor in 1921, the establishment of a Preliminary Training School for Nurses in 1927, and the setting-up of a Special Diet Kitchen in 1929.

Overcrowding was a continual problem for the hospital. By 1915 the hospital had 320 beds, although in reality up to 375 could be accommodated using the balconies as makeshift wards. This overcrowding led to the Committee of Management's decision to rebuild on the Cow and Pig Market site at Parkville. A Government Order-in-Council on 30 July 1929, had reserved an area of a little over 10 acres of this site in Parkville for the Hospital.

On 9 December 1935, an Act of Parliament was passed which authorised possession of the land. In the same year, on 27 March, through Royal Charter, the hospital became known as The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

      The Hospital in Lonsdale St, 1930s.

Work begins on Parkville site

In September 1935 the Victorian Government announced the expenditure of 1,125,000 pounds on State-wide hospital rebuilding and extensions. This sum included 75,000 pounds as a government grant and 75,000 pounds as a loan from unemployment relief moneys for The Royal Melbourne Hospital. In addition, a further loan of 500,000 pounds was guaranteed to the hospital. The balance of the cost of rebuilding was to be raised by the Committee of Management of the hospital. Excavations for the new hospital began on 16 March 1939, with building plans prepared by Stephenson and Turner, specialists in hospital architecture.

But again the problem of finance threatened the project. In 1940, a public appeal was launched that was an outstanding success. Nearly 350,000 pounds was raised including a donation of 140,000 pounds by Ernest and George Connibere to finance the Nurses' Home in memory of their brother, the late Sir Charles Connibere.

The foundation stone for the new hospital was laid on 13 November 1941 by the Premier, the Honourable Mr AA Dunstan, MLA. In 1945 the old hospital on the Lonsdale Street site was sold to the Government for 549,000 pounds.

  Almoner Ambulance in 1948.

This money was used towards redemption of the Government guaranteed loan. The old hospital was then reconditioned and used, firstly as the Central Hospital from 1944-46, and then as the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital from 1946-1987.

Wartime 'occupation'

Plans for immediate public use of the new hospital were abandoned with the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The Commonwealth Government requested that sections of the new buildings be set aside for the 4th General Hospital, United States Army. For two years, from March 1942, the Army occupied the hospital. The first patient was admitted in April and the first wards occupied in May.
The Army left in March 1944 for Finschaven, New Guinea having treated more than 35,000 American soldiers in that time. The hospital buildings were reconditioned and handed over to the management and patients of The Royal Melbourne Hospital on 10 December 1944. With the move, hospital beds had increased to 480.

See Media release - 60th anniversary of US Army occupation of RMH


Left: Nurses leave the Lonsdale St building for the last time before
The Royal Melbourne Hospital moves to Parkville in 1944.

After the end of the war, The Royal Melbourne Hospital grew both in terms of buildings and prestige. With the completion of the North Wing in 1950, hospital beds numbered 639, and after the South Wing (Outpatients Block) was extended in 1975, this number grew to 702.

The opening of the Clinical Sciences Building in 1965 provided much needed space for clinical and research services.

Essendon and RMH amalgamate

In 1986, amalgamation with the Essendon and District Memorial Hospital (EDMH) occurred. Plans for the establishment of EDMH can be traced back to 1945 when the Hospital and Charities Board asked the Essendon Council to consider establishing a hospital in honour of the men and women who served in the Second World War.

A lack of funds postponed its building until the 1960s and in 1964 the maternity wing was officially opened. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the extension of the hospital with the addition of more maternity beds and the construction of a general hospital. Despite the completion of the extensions, in April 1982 the Health Commission suspended commissioning of the new EDMH. In 1986 the EDMH was amalgamated with the Royal Melbourne Hospital following recommendations by the Health Department which suggested that the hospital could operate more economically and effectively, benefiting from the latest techniques and technology available at The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

The 1990s and beyond

From the 1990s, the hospital underwent a period of redevelopment. Older wards were refurbished, an underground car park added in October 1993, the Rotary Bone Marrow Research Centre opened in May 1994, new emergency, radiology and cardiology departments and operating suites opened in October 1994, the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service transferred to the RMH in February 1997, and a new state-of-the-art Intensive Care Unit opened in October 2000.

In 2004, an additional four floors added to the hospital's existing front entry building provided accommodation for new wards, plus structural support for a new rooftop helipad.

Building of the new emergency,
radiology and cardiology areas
in 1993.

The creation of an RMH Research Foundation in 1994 to co-ordinate research activities and ethics further strengthened the hospital's capacity for medical and clinical research. It has since been reconstituted in 2002 as the Melbourne Health Research Directorate.

In August 1995, the RMH became part of a larger network of hospitals, initially the Western Health Care Network, then the North Western Health Care Network from October 1997 to July 2000. Today, The Royal Melbourne Hospital is part of Melbourne Health, serving the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne as well as country Victoria through the provision of general and specialist services and trauma services.

More than 100,000 patients are admitted annually to The Royal Melbourne Hospital and there are more than 300,000 outpatients and over 50,000 emergency attendances a year.

As one of Victoria's leading teaching hospitals, it continues to strive to provide excellence in patient care to all who seek it.


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