Cowper, Henry (1800 - 1849)
Dr. Henry Cowper: "Queensland’s First Medical Practitioner"
By Mr. M. C. F. Pain & Mr. W. J. Kenny for the Cowper200 Committee
Henry Cowper was the eldest son of William and Hannah Cowper, née Horner and was born in June 1800 and Christened on the 17 August 1800 in Drypool, Yorkshire, where his father was commencing studies for Ordination into the Church of England, having recently been discharged from the North Yorkshire Militia. The acceptance of the position of Assistant Colonial Chaplain by William resulted in the sailing of the family (three sons; Henry, Thomas, Charles and a daughter, Mary Stephena and William’s second wife, Ann) aboard the brig ‘Indispensible’. The family left Portsmouth, England on 02 March 1809 arriving in Sydney on 18 August 1809.
At the age of 14 years he was apprenticed (without indentures) to the Colonial Surgeon William Redfern, as a student working in the original convict Hospital at Dawes Point. With the completion of the new Hospital in Macquarie Street, Sydney in 1816, Henry’s duties became concentrated at that institution. He was a surgical dresser attending to the in-patients and out-patients, a dispenser of medication, attendant at convict floggings, and in charge of the Hospital in the absence of Dr. Redfern. By April 1817, Henry had resigned his apprenticeship and was appointed an Assistant at the Hospital at a salary of ₤6/5/0 annually and free rations William Redfern was a sound Practitioner and Henry’s training, which ultimately extended to a total of 6 years, was sufficient for him to pass an assessment by an examining panel probably in about 1820. This success enabled him to be appointed to the Colonial Medical Service as Assistant Surgeon and he held this position which involved being stationed at Sydney Hospital and Liverpool Hospital until 26 January 1821.
He proceeded to England aboard the Dromedary on 14 February 1821 to pursue further studies and was attached to St. George’s Hospital at Tooting, London, working under the tutelage of Sir Everard Home, a leading London Surgeon of the period. Sir Everard Home had been trained by the famed surgical anatomist, John Hunter (Everard’s brother-in-law) so that Henry would have received excellent surgical instruction. After 11 months of a 12 month course, he successfully passed the examination of the College of Surgeons London and was admitted as a member (M.R.C.S.L.) on 06 September 1822. He returned to Sydney aboard the 'Lusitania' on 31st May 1823.
Source: The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser - Thursday 5 June 1823
Clearly his Australian training had been taken into account and favourably viewed since his time in England was quite short. By the standards of the day he would be considered to have had a sound medical training with Membership of a prestigious College to demonstrate this. His higher qualification meant that his official designation was “Mr. Henry Cowper, Surgeon”, the use of “Mr.” being a long established custom to distinguish qualified Surgeons from General Practitioners and Physicians. However, the subsequent nature of his practice was that of a general practitioner and Henry is referred to more usually as “Dr. Cowper”.
After his return to the Colony, Henry set up in Private Practice in Parramatta from 1823 to 1825. From 07 September 1825, he was appointed Assistant Surgeon-in-Charge at the Moreton Bay Settlement. His annual salary was £136.17.6 with free quarters and rations3. Prior to Henry’s appointment, the Commissariat Storeman Walter Scott acted as Surgeon for the Settlement, one could imagine Scott was greatly relieved when Henry Cowper was appointed. By all accounts the medical work was extremely demanding with a work load that increased rapidly over the first few years when the settlement population was over a thousand. Captain Patrick Logan arrived as the new Commandant in March 1826 and immediately recognised the need for a purpose built hospital. He drew up plans and forwarded them to the Governor. On 21 August 182914, the Surveyor, Allan Cunningham begun a survey of Brisbane town, with the survey starting at the steps of south-western corner of the hospital. The hospital stood in the grounds now occupied by the Supreme Court. During this time Cunningham was housed at the Hospital as a guest of Henry Cowper. After completing his work, Cunningham set sail for Sydney in September 1829 to submit his report. Eventually a hospital was built, which was the forerunner of the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Henry was required on several occasions to return to Sydney for various reasons and in 1829 was required specifically to attend a murder trial as a witness. During these absences his duties were undertaken by Assistant Surgeon Lister of the 57th Regiment who at that time made complaints about his “extremely harassing” civilian duties resulting in a visit from the newly appointed Dr. James Bowman, Inspector of Colonial Hospitals. Bowman noted serious overcrowding and the need for further buildings (including a cottage for Henry in the Hospital yard)3. He noted there were 87 Hospital inpatients, a considerable clinical load for a single Medical Officer. In addition Henry had been appointed as an Assistant Surgeon at the Sydney Hospital effective 17 April 1831 at a salary of ₤182/10/0 per annum, plus ₤50/0/0 for expenses15. With the constant moving between the two Hospitals, it must have been a tremendous strain to cope with what surely must have been a very difficult situation. Dr. Bowman recommended that a second Medical Officer be appointed; resulting in Dr. John Fitzgerald Murray, being appointed to the position effective 01 May 1830.
Shortly after his arrival, Dr. Murray wrote a gossipy letter dated 10 May 183013 to his sister, Mrs Anna Bunn, living in Sydney. It gives a rare glimpse into conditions and personalities in the Moreton Bay Settlement although they are really only first impressions. Regarding Henry Cowper, Murray says; “an excessive grog drinker and smoker and a most ill-tempered and quarrelsome man I ever saw, of which I witnessed repeated proofs already, although I am not yet a week at the settlement… I really think he is half insane. However he is aware of his dreadful temper, for he speaks about it and says he is quite sure he will yet be confined to a mad-house. He has good friends, notwithstanding. I shall make you laugh by telling some anecdotes about him, please God”. Murray was a witness to Henry accusing a Mr. Parker of murder. Murray persuaded Henry to apologise and the apology was accepted. “The charge was a serious one, namely murder, made in the middle of the day when Mr. Cowper was groggy. Do not have it mentioned publicly as it might injure Mr. Cowper. This young man makes himself disliked greatly. Captain Logan told me that Mr. Cowper was his own greatest enemy here”. However, Bateson notes that “the stern and austere Logan seems to have had a real affection for him”3. In 1830 Logan was murdered, most probably by natives, whilst on an exploratory expedition and Henry lead the search party that eventually located the body. The report from Captain James Oliphant Clunie, Commandant of convicts for Moreton Bay, states “Hopes were entertained of his (Capt Logan) being alive till the 28th ultimo, when Dr. Cowper, whose exertions on this occasion were very great and for which I felt indebted, discovered the dead stinking horse in a creek and not far from it, at the top of the bank, the body of Captain Logan, buried about a foot underground”8. Very unfortunately, the clinical records for the period 1824-1829 (Volume I of the Brisbane Hospital records) are missing from the Queensland State Archives, having been presumed stolen in the 1960’s4. However, Dr. Earnest Sandford Jackson, who was once the Medical Superintendent of the Brisbane Hospital, was able to examine these in the 1920’s5. Records of a later period still exist. Henry kept careful records of the outpatient and inpatient workload with diagnoses and these lists form a valuable picture of the health of the little settlement. Intermittent fever (malaria), dysentery, eye infections and ulcers figure prominently in the case records. They are recorded in a perfect copperplate script-probably not Henry’s handwriting but the effort of a convict requisitioned for the purpose. Henry carried out a useful epidemiological study comparing the incidence of disease in the main settlement and in the outstation at Eagle Farm.
There were some female convicts in the settlement and when a female became ill, Henry insisted that admission to the Hospital was necessary. Henry’s motives were never questioned. It was, however, the presence of female convicts that lead to Henry’s dismissal effective 31 December 1832. The discovery of two intoxicated female convicts lead to an enquiry. At first Henry denied all knowledge of the incident, he then blamed a Mr. Richards, Captain of the Brig Governor Phillip. He subsequently admitted, after Mr Richards was brought ashore to give evidence that he and Mr. Richards with a convict had broken into the Female Factory and supplied the females with rum. On receiving this report Governor Bourke dismissed Henry, Richards and two other accomplices, despite the Colonial Secretary (Alexander McLeay) suggesting that the matter should be dismissed as a minor aberration. Dr Bowman attempted to defend Henry, pointing out the extremely arduous nature of his work. In a letter to the Colonial Secretary dated 11 December 1832 he wrote “ Mr. Cowper was subjected to many privations and had a very arduous duty to perform, in doing which he acquitted himself in such a manner as to deserve the approbation of his superiors”6. Details of the enquiry are contained in the State Records NSW7 and Ross Patrick provides an interesting summary8. The Governor is supposed to have commented that “my respect for his father was the only reason he had not been dismissed before this”. Henry was dismissed from the Government Medical Service and returned to Sydney. His medical activities from this time become uncertain. He is known to have settled in Chatsworth, NSW and also in Macquarie Place in Sydney for a year or so.
Henry married Eliza Laura Prince on 03 January 1837 who was at that time the Governess at “Denbigh” Cobbitty, NSW the property of the Hassalls11. No doubt Henry had met Eliza through visits he had made to his brother Charles who was developing his estate at nearby “Wivenhoe”. They were married in Heber Chapel, Parish of Narellan, by Thomas Hassall with Charles Cowper and George Horne as witnesses. Heber Chapel was built by Thomas Hassall in 1828 and is the only Memorial in Australia to Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta within whose Diocese - Australia then fell. Henry and Eliza had no children.
On the 25 February 1839, he was approved by the NSW Medical Board as a person suitably qualified as “having submitted the necessary testimonials of qualification to defined the qualifications of medical witnesses at Coroner’s Inquests and Inquiries held before Justices of the Peace in the Colony of New South Wales”10. He is listed as being in The Medical Department in the County of the Murray from 1837 to 1844 with his address as Bungonia.
For the period 31 January 1838 until his death on 5 June 1949 he is regularly listed in the Government Gazette as an “Insolvent Farmer and Grazier” from Notices inserted by the NSW Supreme Court. The insolvency resulted from the purchase of land and other farming equipment. The land is described as Lot 6 just near the town of Tallagandra, NSW, a short distance from Bungonia. It consisted of 1,150 acres of well watered land as well as 759 sheep, 93 head of cattle.
Throughout his battle to overcome the insolvency issue, he sought the help of his brother Thomas and his father. William offered to pay the debt for him. The figure was ₤287/10/0 which was the original purchase price meaning that Henry never paid any money off his mortgage. This amount together with accrued interest forced his father to withdraw his offer and Henry never succeeded in removing the debt which remained with him until his death. His brother, Thomas, remained as a Trustee until the land was finally sold by the Crown to Henry’s widow, Eliza in 1857. She paid ₤50, interestingly much less than the original cost 19 years earlier.
Henry died on 05 June 1849 whilst visiting the Broughton family at their property “Broughtonsworth”, Boorowa, NSW and he is buried at Lang’s Creek Cemetery, where his Headstone can still be found today.
Henry’s Headstone Inscription reads;
Eliza lived at Macquarie Place in Sydney after Henry’s death and she died on 11 February 1880 at Surry Hills, NSW. She is buried in the Old Church of England Section at the Rookwood Necropolis in an unmarked grave. Eliza’s death certificate was completed from information supplied by her brother-in-law William Macquarie Cowper. The Death Certificate also states that Eliza had lived in the Colony for 44 years, having arrived in Sydney aboard the 'Duchess of Northumberland' in 1836.
Although apparently considered as something of a black sheep by his close Relatives, Henry Cowper occupies an important place in the medical history of Australia and we should not let his shortcomings detract from his rightful place. Several medical firsts are sometimes claimed for Henry, some of them incorrectly. He was not Australia’s first medical student. That honour belonged to James Sheers who unfortunately died in 1814, twelve months after commencing his apprenticeship1. He was not Australia’s first medical graduate since he never attended a university medical school. He was the first Australian to complete medical studies and be qualified to practice. He was the first Australian Practitioner to proceed overseas for higher qualifications - a precedent followed by hundreds of Australian medical graduates since then. He was probably the youngest ever Australian medical student. He was certainly the first Medical Officer in what was later to become Queensland and the first Medical Officer of the future Royal Brisbane Hospital. I suspect Henry was definitely persona non grata with his younger brother, William Macquarie, who makes no mention of him in his memoirs12. I doubt if the one episode at Moreton Bay was sufficient to account for his position of disgrace within the family. There are references to Henry’s lapses as a student relating to pilfering hospital stores1. I suspect he caused his father much worry in those days and that there was continued cause for concern throughout his life. That said Henry cannot be ignored. He is historically important and deserves to be remembered. There is much uncertainty about aspects of his life. The nature of Henry’s medical practice in his last 10 years is uncertain. Was he in private practice or filling some government position? He was clearly a difficult person with a short temper. A better side of his nature emerges when we hear that he regularly conducted Divine Services and Funeral Services at Moreton Bay in the absence of any Clergy. There is good evidence that he carried out his medical duties in a manner which completely satisfied the Commandants (Logan and Clunie) and that Dr. James Bowman, his superior in the Medical Department, clearly appreciated his work at Moreton Bay. He was also sufficiently respected to have the area where he regularly camped on trips named Cowper’s Plains in Brisbane although this has now been corrupted to Coopers Plains because that was the more usual pronunciation of “Cowper”. Interestingly there is a thoroughfare named Cowper Place located within Coopers Plains.
1. The History of Sydney Hospital from 1811 to 1911. J. F. Watson. W. A. Gullick Government Printer 1911.
Further information provided from the unpublished research compiled by, the late Bryan Gandevia and Maureen De Bolfo.