St Vincent's Hospital

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Founded by the Sisters of Charity in Sydney in 1857, St Vincent’s was intended from the start to be a comprehensive public hospital, open to all regardless of nationality, belief or sex. The poor were to be the main beneficiaries of the subscribers’ offerings. It provided an avenue for medical education prior to the development of the Medical School at the University of Sydney. Practitioners were able, on application, to attend operations performed by the surgeons at the hospital. Several of the St Vincent’s men were notable in medical affairs in the colony, including James Robertson (q.v.), who convened the first meeting of the short-lived Australian Medical Association in 1858, and Frederick Milford (q.v.).

The first twelve years of the Hospital’s existence were spent at Tarmons, Potts Point, the former home of Sir Charles Nicholson (q.v.), Speaker of the Legislative Council and one of the founders of the University, before moving to the present site in Darlinghurst. By 1882 there were one hundred beds and St Vincent’s hoped that it would be able to meet the curriculum requirements of the English licensing bodies ‘at home’. Thus, when the Medical School at the University of Sydney was instituted, St Vincent’s immediately applied to the Senate for recognition as a hospital suitable for clinical instruction. Recognition was granted, but later in the year some members of the Faculty of Medicine recommended withdrawal of the privilege, on the plea that there was no guarantee that the medical officers there would be duly and properly qualified for clinical teaching. This was in spite of the presence of several members of staff who would have long associations with the Faculty, including G. Bennett, J. C. Cox, H. N. MacLaurin and F. Milford (qq.v.). It seems unlikely that religious considerations entered, since it was noted that ‘the men were all Protestants’.

The Senate, disinclined to withdraw recognition of St Vincent’s, requested the Faculty to prepare general rules for regulating the recognition of hospitals, but this the Faculty refused to do. Instead, it asked the Hospital to draw up rules for the appointment of staff and regulations governing the teaching. Despite a rebuke from the Senate, the Faculty adhered to its view and demanded written rules. It was not until 1886 that the Registrar notified the Superioress ‘… that the amended rules are satisfactory.’ Despite this recognition, students were not sent to St Vincent’s from the Medical School until 1923, when it became a full clinical school for clinical training of students1. At this time, the names of many members of staff are familiar from their association with the Faculty, including on the surgical side Sir Alexander MacCormick and Robert Scot Skirving (qq.v.). The first Clinical Lecturer in Medicine was O. A. Diethelm, who held office for twenty-four years, and in Surgery, B. T. Edye (one year) and V. M. Coppleson (over twenty years) (both were later knighted). In 1930, D. I. (later Sir Douglas) Miller became Dean of Studies at St Vincent’s and one year later the timetable was adjusted to correlate the clinical curriculum with the University’s programme of instruction. However, it was not until 1951 that the Hospital provided facilities for final-year examinations.

One notable year was 1964. In it, the Garvan Institute for Medical Research was opened, together with a new clinical school building and residence for medical students. That year also saw the retirement of Miller as Dean of the Clinical School, after more than thirty-four years; his name is perpetuated in the Douglas Miller Lecture Theatre. A Sub-Professorial Department in Medicine was established under the guidance of Associate Professor J. B. Hickie and a similar unit in Surgery was established with G. W. Milton in charge.

A grant for the provision of additional clinical teaching facilities was provided by the Australian Universities Commission in 1965, and a floor was added to the services block to provide full teaching, laboratory and office facilities for the Sub-Professorial Departments. However, in 1966, discussions were commenced which were to result in the change of allegiance of St Vincent’s from the University of Sydney to the newly opened Faculty of Medicine at the University of N.S.W. After lengthy considerations by an advisory board, the medical staff, Universities and Government, it was felt that the experience of St Vincent’s as a teaching hospital was vital to the development of the new Medical School. Thus the last group of students from the University of Sydney entered fourth year in 1968; the following year, the fourth-year group came from the University of N.S.W. With the change, Hickie was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of N.S.W., to remain at St Vincent’s, and Milton was appointed to a Chair in Surgery at the University of Sydney, attached to Sydney Hospital.

The decision to sever the connection between St Vincent’s and the University of Sydney was taken with great reluctance on the part of both institutions. With the graduation early in 1971 of the last forty-four students of the University of Sydney Medical School trained at St Vincent’s, a relationship which had lasted forty-four years was ended. 1Just as St Vincent’s in Dublin was the first hospital administered by an order of Religious Nurses in the English-speaking world to become a teaching institution (1834), so St Vincent’s in Melbourne (1910) and in Sydney (1923) can claim this priority for Australia.

Source: C. O’Carrigan, "Sydney University Medical Society" in Young J, Sefton A and Webb N, Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine. Sydney University Press, Sydney