Soaking up the sun and history at Sydney Hospital

The beautiful view from the dissection laboratory at Sydney Hospital.

I am at Sydney Hospital this weekend convening the St Vincent's Head and Neck Dissection Course. The history of the hospital is intriguing, especially rumours of a sunlit operating theatre built in the 1850s.

Surgeons hard at work in the dissection lab under the watchful eye of Dr Brett Leavers. You can see Victorian ironwork through the large windows.

In a setting such as Sydney Hospital it is impossible not to reflect on the history of hospitals and surgery in Australia from the commencement of white settlement. Arthur Phillip created the first Sydney Infirmary in a series of tents on the shores of Sydney Cove when the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Did you also know:

  • It was originally called the Rum Hospital because the three contractors who built the hospital, including one of the original surgeons, were paid by being given exclusive rights to sell approximately 45,000 gallons of rum. In those days rum was the currency of the colony.
  • The buildings on Macquarie Street housing NSW State Parliament and the Mint are the east and west wings of the original Rum Hospital.
  • The first operating theatre in Australia was built in Sydney Hospital above the bath-house in 1855.
  • The bath-house was erected in 1850, the same year that gas lighting came to Sydney. The bath-house had two baths which served the entire infirmary.

But by far my favourite story about Sydney Hospital is that the ceiling of the original operating theatre had skylights to make the most of the natural light. Built on the top floor of the Victorian section of the hospital it would have been considered cutting edge for its day. The room still exists but sadly the original roof is concealed above a suspended plasterboard ceiling and cannot be seen. With no air conditioning it would have been a brutal place to work in the midst of a Sydney summer (a lot of brows would have required mopping) but I still cannot help feeling envious of being able to operate in a room which is not housed in a basement. I might have even worked up a bit of a tan.

Australia’s first operating theatre was built at the top of the hospital not long after gas lighting was introduced to Sydney in the 1850s. It had glass skylights to take advantage of the natural light.

I hope the surgeons and observers attending this weekend’s course take a moment to soak up the history and imagine what it would have been like to work in the hospital in its many inceptions, from colonial tent city, to Governor Macquarie’s rum funded hospital, to Victorian infirmary. The hospital’s grand staircase is a good reminder of how far we have come. It is easy to admire the grandeur of the staircase without stopping to think it was built that way in order to accommodate two lanes of stretcher traffic. And don’t forget to drop a coin and rub the nose of Il Porcellino for good luck. It is replica of Florence’s famous statue, donated to the City of Sydney by the Marchesa Fiaschi Torrigiani as a memorial to her father and brother Thomas and Piero Fiaschi who were both surgeons at the hospital. Now that is a fantastic snout.

Many people rub Il Porcellino’s nose and make a coin donation to bring good luck. Alternatively you can admire it alongside a group of Ear Nose and Throat Surgeons and hear a lot of bad jokes.

Additional Resources

Sydney Hospital’s Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Museum

Illustrations of Sydney Hospital by Simon Fieldhouse

National Museum of Australia


Thank you to Shona Gallagher for additional research.