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The Silver City: A medical history

Tuesday, 2nd May, 2017

The ship in the desert... the Broken Hill Base Hospital. The ship in the desert... the Broken Hill Base Hospital.

By Christine Adams

The pioneers of Broken Hill and surrounding areas were, by necessity, tough and hardy. 

The first hospital for the district, a wood and iron building was opened in August 1884 at Silverton. 

It was replaced in 1887 by a 14-bed brick and stone building.  

Medical and nursing services were provided by three doctors: Drs T E Seabrook, R D Deane and John Thomson and Matron Armstrong. 

In 1886 members of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association contributed to a fund from which Dr John Thomson, the district’s Medical Officer, was paid to provide medical care to all members and their families. He also undertook a weekly visit to Day Dream, the Pinnacles and Broken Hill to attend any accidents or serious illness within the district.

A typhoid epidemic spread through the ‘barrier fields’ in 1888 and 15% of admissions to the Silverton Hospital died: most are buried in the Silverton Cemetery.

Charles Rasp’s discovery of silver in Broken Hill in 1883 contributed to the decline of Silverton as miners flocked to the rich mining field. By 1900 the Silverton hospital building was in disrepair and was demolished in 1914. 

In 1886 a temporary six-bed structure that mainly accommodated mine accident victims was erected by the Broken Hill Proprietary Mine following a request by the Broken Hill Miners’ Association to assist its employees.

At that time, members of the Broken Hill Progress Association also lobbied for the building of a hospital for the people of Broken Hill. The city’s first hospital was opened on 16th May 1887. 

The building was a rough structure and a large marquee erected on the present Broken Hill Gaol site in Gossan Street. Mrs Burkhill was appointed Matron and Miss Von Puttkamer her assistant nurse. Dr Henry Firth Groves, a man who contributed time and money to his patients’ needs was the attending doctor.       

This hospital was inadequate for a mining camp destined to grow into a city. 

The appalling living conditions in Broken Hill in 1888 were the catalyst for change; hygiene was non-existent. Broken Hill also experienced a typhoid epidemic that year through which the medical and nursing facilities struggled. 362 patients were admitted to the Broken Hill Hospital; 17% of whom died. 62% of deaths were the result of typhoid.  The horror of 1888 galvanised the people into action. 

A new hospital to accommodate 80 beds was built on the present hospital site and was opened by Sir Henry Parkes on 26 June 1889. Men working on the building agreed to contribute financially towards the cost of the hospital. The Workers’ Contribution Scheme was born and remained in place until the introduction of Medibank in 1975.

“The NSW Government made an unconditional grant of £2000 towards the new building which was estimated to cost £3-4000. Mr. S. R. Wilson, Manager of the Proprietary Mine (BHP) collected £312 for a hospital intended for the sole use of BHP employees but recognised a joint financial effort was more beneficial than divided efforts and wisely handed over that sum to the hospital committee. 

The most individual generous donor to the hospital was George McCulloch, who gave £750 to enable the new building to be furnished. The Directors of the Proprietary Mine Company gave £500 which of course also included George McCulloch. The Main Ward was named after George McCulloch, one of the Syndicate of Seven for his generosity” - Barrier Miner 26 June 1889.

Men’s Surgical Ward

Extensions to the building continued as the population of Broken Hill grew and the ‘mining camp’ turned into a city. 

The Operating Theatre was completed in 1907 and was at that time considered to equal the best operating theatres in Australia.  

Two Isolation Blocks were opened in 1904 and 1930 respectively; a new Dispensary in 1921; Pathology and X-Ray Department in 1923. The first X-Ray plant was installed by electrical engineers from Broken Hill South Limited and was operated from lead-acid batteries that were charged at regular intervals by the South Mine and delivered to the hospital on a horse drawn cart. 

Children’s Ward and Midwifery Ward

A dedicated Children’s Ward opened in 1930. Mining companies, businesses, sporting and social groups donated cots for the children’s ward to commemorate the King’s Jubilee in 1935. The bronze plaques recognising the generosity of sponsors can be viewed at the hospital museum.

Hospital births and the need for a maternity wing are first mentioned in records in 1925. Until that time home births with midwives and doctors in attendance were the norm.

The old isolation ward was converted to a Maternity Ward and finally opened to serve the women of Broken Hill on 11 January 1930. 1000 babies were born in this unit by 1933. This maternity ward was in use until 1954.

The additional wards increased the initial bed capacity of the hospital from 80 to 207.

The influence of Albert Morris who donated 1100 trees to the Broken Hill and District Hospital in the 1930s was evident through the beautification of the hospital grounds. This grand old hospital served the people of Broken Hill well; growing with the city’s population until, tired and aged she stepped aside for a modern hospital to take her place. This old hospital continued in use for many years; old wards being brought back into commission in 1966 as a geriatric unit.

Plans for the ‘new hospital’ were announced in 1938. That year 3254 patients were admitted to the hospital including seven typhoid cases resulting in no deaths and 17 cases of diphtheria. Parents were urged to immunise their children. 

Ship in the Desert

Broken Hill’s third hospital, affectionately known as the ‘ship in the desert’ because of its similarity to an ocean liner was opened on the 24th September 1941. The hospital kiosk was also opened on this day; volunteers faithfully serving patients, staff and visitors-a tradition still continuing in the present day. The Plaque for the opening of the kiosk is on exhibit in the Hospital Museum.

The cost of the new Broken Hill and District Hospital was met by the Hospitals Commission of New South Wales, local mining companies and by local subscriptions from the workers of Broken Hill. The mining companies’ employees paid one penny in the pound from their wages until £10,000 was subscribed. The remaining £4,000 was raised by the Citizens’ Hospital Building Fund Committee. 

The employees throughout the town contributed one penny in the pound of their wages to this Committee and the Chamber of Commerce recommended its members to subsidise their employees’ contributions by a like amount as being their share of the contributions. Business people throughout the town who had no employees contributed sixpence per week. This is the hospital that the people held in their hearts.

The first superintendent of the 1941 hospital was Doctor Sam Barnett; Miss Gertrude Siegel was the first matron. Names that will forever linked to the ‘ship in the desert’ include: Doctors V Barron, F Schlink, H McMeekin, W B Dorsch and Mr G Ormandy; Matrons R Hunter, H Wade; Deputy Matron Sister Irene Drummond and Sister Vivian Bullwinkel and Miss G Vance who was matron of the hospital from 1943-1967.

The Broken Hill and District Hospital was the first fully air-conditioned hospital in Australia. It was located in front of its predecessor in which wards remained open to accommodate convalescent or chronically ill patients. The new hospital consisted of five floors; Outpatient Clinics, X-Ray Department, Casualty, Administration and Board Room were located on the ground floor; children’s and private wards on the fourth floor with general wards located on the second and third floors. Buildings within the grounds such as the Nurses’ Quarters, Domestic Accommodation and Mortuary were connected to the main building by covered walkways. 

In 1981 the name of the Broken Hill & District Hospital was changed to Broken Hill Base Hospital. In 1999 the ‘grand old lady’ was demolished to make way for the present hospital. The current Broken Hill Health Service was officially opened on Wednesday, 1st of March, 2000 by the Hon. Craig Knowles MP, NSW Minister for Health.

Today, the Broken Hill Health Service also known as the Base Hospital or BH Hospital is a rural teaching hospital thus continuing a tradition that began in 1903. It provides acute, non-acute and outpatients services to Broken Hill and surrounding communities. 

The Hospital has 88 inpatient beds including general medical, surgical, obstetric, paediatric, dialysis and special care beds, as well as operating theatre (including day surgery) and palliative care services.

The Hospital’s well-trained staff and specialists use the latest technology and state-of-the-art facilities to provide critical care services including emergency department, intensive care, high dependency and coronary care. Support services include radiology and pathology departments, as well as a wide range of allied and primary health services. The medical and health practitioners are supported by staff in administration and support roles.

A unique range of medical services is also provided to the community through the provision of specialist clinics. The specialist clinics are staffed by a combination of visiting medical officers (VMO’s), staff specialists, nursing and clerical staff. The specialist services provided include; general medicine, general surgery, orthopaedics, ophthalmology, gastroenterology, cardiology, urology, oncology, plastic surgery, ear, nose and throat and vascular surgery.

The Broken Hill Health Service was bolstered in 2012 by the addition on campus of new Mental Health and Rehabilitation Sub-Acute Facilities each having 10 beds.

The State Government has committed $30 million to build a new Community Health Centre in the Broken Hill CBD, including a new dental facility, child and family health services, co-located primary health and other services and administrative offices for the LHD. The funding includes an update to the Broken Hill Hospital’s ambulatory care services. Work is expected to commence in July 2017.

The Broken Hill Health Service services a wide area encompassing a population of around 20,000 people. The Health Service also has unique partnerships with organisations such as Maari Ma Aboriginal Health Corporation, the University Department of Rural Health and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The Broken Hill Health Service is part of the Far West Local Health District. The Far West LHD was formed on 1 January 2011 and covers an area spanning 194,949 square kilometres, reaching from the Queensland to Victorian borders. The LHD provides primary care to an estimated resident population of 32,534 (as at June 2006) and includes seven (7) public health facilities: Broken Hill Health Service, Balranald Multipurpose Service, Wilcannia Multipurpose Service, White Cliffs, Wentworth Health Service, Ivanhoe Health One, Menindee Health Service and Tibooburra Health Service. The LHD also includes the Child and Family Health Centre and Dareton Primary Care and Community Health Service. 

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