Nicholson, Charles

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Sir Charles Nicholson Bt (1808–1903) MD Edin. HonLLD Cantab. HonLLD Edin. HonDCL Oxon. Chancellor (1860–1861) Provost (1854–1860) Vice-Provost (1851–1853) Fellow of Senate (1850–1883)

Charles Nicholson was born in Cumberland, England, the only son of a merchant. He was orphaned at an early age and grew up in Yorkshire in the care of a maiden aunt. After receiving private schooling, he studied Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with distinction; he obtained his MD in 1833 for a thesis in Latin on the causes and treatment of asphyxiation. Almost immediately thereafter, he emigrated to Australia accompanied by his aunt and a male cousin to join an uncle, Captain James Ascough, who had made a fortune in trading and shipping and who now owned a large property on the Hawkesbury River. Nicholson inherited his uncle’s estate, following his death in a drowning accident, and after a few years of country practice, moved to Sydney where, while continuing to practise, he began to enter business and public life. His inheritance brought him great wealth and he became an absentee pastoralist on a very big scale. In Sydney he enjoyed a reputation as an excellent obstetrician but, of course, as was normal in those days, his practice was quite general. Slowly his medical work was phased out but he was still reasonably active in this respect until 1845. Indeed, in 1844 he was elected Vice-President of the Medico-Chirurgical Association of Australia, the forerunner of all other Australian medical professional bodies. He sat as a member of the Medical Board in the 1840s and was elected to the Legislative Council in 1843 as the Member for Port Phillip. He became Speaker from 1846 to 1856.

During these years he became associated and politically allied with William Charles Wentworth and, in due course, he became a foundation Fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney. In the University he held office, first as Vice-Provost from 1851 and later as Chancellor or Provost from 1854 to 1861, and even though he left the Colony for England in that year, never to return, he remained a Fellow of Senate until 1883. In that capacity, he often acted as the University’s agent abroad, for example by helping to engage staff. Similarly, at an earlier time, it was he who secured the grant to the University of its Arms and of a Royal Charter, the latter assuring the University of the recognition of its degrees in Britain. Although he failed, while resident in Sydney, to get the Medical School opened, he ensured that the Faculty was created and, from England, kept raising the question of opening a Medical School until the matter was finally accomplished. For example, in August 1865, at his instigation, a certain Mr Peter Smith, ‘from Scotland’, wrote to the Senate offering his services uninvited as a Professor of Anatomy. It can be presumed that, in 1882, he was active in seeking out a suitable candidate for the position to which Anderson Stuart was eventually appointed. That there appears to have been only one candidate, and that unanimously recommended by several different professional and academic institutions, suggests that someone coordinated the selection process. Unfortunately his private papers were destroyed in a fire in 1901 and we cannot tell—Professor Smith was also in England on leave in 1882 and he certainly had discussions with Anderson Stuart (Epps, 1922) but it is difficult to imagine that the dour and unenthusiastic Smith could have been responsible for finding such a candidate.

Nicholson was created a Knight Bachelor in 1852 and a Baronet in 1859 in recognition of his outstanding service to the Colony. He died in England in 1903 at the age of ninety-five. His Arms are carved in stone on the eastern façade of the Great Hall to the left of the entrance, and a full length and very impressive portrait of him hangs within, on the western wall. The fine charcoal and pastel drawing of him by G. Koberwein, reproduced in this volume, hangs in the entrance to the Nicholson Museum: it was given to the University in 1961 by Sir Charles’s grandson, Sir John Nicholson.

Today, Nicholson is remembered principally for his non-medical activities. He assembled a magnificent collection of antiquities which he gave to the University in 1860, a collection that forms the core of the present Nicholson Museum, among the finest University teaching collections of antiquities anywhere. His interest in art and archaeology was just one manifestation of his enormous cultivation and learning. The University as a whole is justly proud of him as a founding Fellow and a great Chancellor but the Faculty of Medicine owes him particular recognition for his was the drive that led to its foundation.

A.D.B. Vol. 2, pp. 283–285.

Senate Minutes, August 1865.

Dallan, R. A. (1933). J.R.A.H.S. Vol. 19, pp. 213–220.

Windeyer, W.J.V. (1978). Sir Charles Nicholson: A Place in History. The John Murtagh Macrossan Lecture, 1976. University of Queensland

Press, St Lucia. Qld.

Archives of the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney.

Epps, William (1922). Anderson Stuart MD. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Sydney Morning Herald (1844). 18 May.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Nicholson, Charles. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.