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In The Beginning: South Australia

Historians have labelled South Australia as the Paradise of Dissent. Certainly, there was much public argument involving doctors early in the history of the colony over the state of the first hospitals there. Dr (later Sir) Joseph Verco, arguably South Australia’s most eminent physician in those days (and later a founding member of the state branch of the BMA), was reported to have complained that a gap had grown between “sedate seniors” among the colony’s doctors in the early days who were more concerned with “petty disputes about medical etiquette and punctilio” and “ardent juniors” who wanted “a rather more scientific kind of meeting to read papers and discuss cases and specimens”. This generation gap was said to be the reason for the failure of an early attempt at organisation (the South Australian Medical Association) that survived no longer than five years. But, in comparison with attempts at medical organisation in the settlements in the east, that in South Australia was comparatively benign.

In 1834 (two years, that is, before the colony was proclaimed and the first immigrant vessels arrived there), a South Australian Literary and Scientific Association had been established “for the Cultivation and Diffusion of Useful Knowledge”. It set up a library, organised lectures and arranged “periodical meetings for conversation”. By 1853, it had morphed into the Philosophical Society of South Australia and then, in 1880, into the Royal Society of South Australia. During this period, leading doctors in the colony had featured prominently in its activities. They included Dr Verco and Dr William Gosse (later both founding members of the BMA) and Dr George Mayo, later President of the Medical Board. Dr (later Sir) Edward Stirling, who helped set up the medical school at The University of Adelaide (and led the campaign to allow women to study at the university) was another active member.

Dr Handasyde Duncan, who became the colony’s first Health Officer in the late 1840s, is said to have helped set up a medical organisation around this time but its records have been lost. In 1872, the South Australian Medical Association was founded, with Dr Gosse as its first President. But its records also have been lost – though it has been reported to have held some meetings in its first year – and it is said to have been wound up in 1881.

Meanwhile, another generation gap had opened up. Adelaide had attracted a group of younger, mainly Australian-born doctors during the 1870s (many of them on the staff of the Royal Adelaide Hospital) who had become disenchanted by what they considered to be a lack of scientific interest among their older colleagues. They joined with Dr Gosse and like-minded and locally well-known physicians such as Dr Thomas Corbin, Dr John Davies Thomas and Dr William Hayward in trying to establish an active and better organised professional body in South Australia. In 1879, their ambitions and ideas came to fruition when Dr Henry, still in Melbourne, issued his invitation from the BMA to form a branch in South Australia. The deed was done in June of that year. The first branch of the BMA was established, though the SA move was not immediately ratified by the parent body in London until 1880.

Dr Corbin, who moved the formal motion to establish the branch, was Secretary. The President of the Council was Dr Gosse (said by Dr Hayward to be universally respected “at a time when the brotherhood of man was not conspicuous among the members of the medical profession”). Over the next five years, the new branch had recruited about 80 members and it began to publish reports of its proceedings. It had helped found a medical school in The University of Adelaide in 1885. It organised the first Intercolonial Medical Congress in 1887, which coincided with the South Australian Jubilee Exhibition. Congresses followed in Melbourne in 1889, in Sydney in 1892 and in Dunedin in New Zealand in 1896. Moreover, the SA branch was a prime actor in the development later of BMA branches into a national organisation.

The path ahead was not always smooth, however. In the 1880s and 1890s, the branch had developed enough muscle and organising ability to take on the State Government over staffing issues at the Adelaide Hospital in a dispute that had poor consequences for the organisation. The branch decided to boycott the hospital. All its members on the honorary staff resigned. The medical school almost completely shut down. It did not help that Premier Charles Kingston was widely suspected by doctors of having homeopathic sympathies. Relations with the Government were not entirely restored for 15 or so years.

Looking back on the dispute, Dr Verco and other leading members of the BMA branch were reported to have considered that it could have been handled more wisely. All the same, the BMA had shown itself as an organisation of some influence and, eventually, a force to be consulted in health policy and legislation. And it was the BMA branch in South Australia that was the wellspring for the evolution to national organisation. In 1911, at the instigation of Dr Hayward, the members resolved that a Federal Committee of the BMA should be formed that would represent the interests of the state organisations in the developing national-level issues such as the Commonwealth’s ideas for a national health system, operation of hospitals and national health insurance.