Wednesday 2 April 2014

Dr William Bell

The bulk of the information for this post comes from the extensive research performed by Lois Sabine from the Blue Mountains Historical Society. Lois spent countless hours researching material for her article on Dr Bell in the Blue Mountains History Journal cited at the end of this post.

Few men have left such an indelible mark on Campbelltown as Dr William Bell. Although he only lived in Campbelltown for six years, his medical contributions helped him earn the reputation as one of the finest doctors the town has seen.

William Bell was born in Newry, Ireland in 1815. He sailed to Sydney in 1839 as Surgeon Superintendent and after arriving established a practice where he offered free consultations for the poor. He then moved to Parramatta and Windsor where he performed more medical work. However Dr Bell soon became insolvent as a result largely of the economic conditions of the 1840s. In fact money problems plagued him for the rest of his life.

Dr Bell wrote a number of medical publications during his life. His first work written in 1849 was "The Settlers Guide" or "Modern Domestic Medicine and Surgery". This book arose from Bell's observation of the need to help the many settlers who lived out in the bush, and who were far away from medical assistance. He also hoped that the book would solve his financial problems.

Bell moved to Carcoar near Bathurst in 1850 and then Orange the following year. In 1854 he had a practice at nearby Sofala on the goldfields. A coroner's report from his time there reported that he had performed a post mortem on a notorious drunkard, a woman who had been missing overnight and was found next day standing upright in the middle of a water hole but when rescued she immediately expired.

In 1855 the miners were moving on from the goldfields and Dr Bell thought Campbelltown would be a good place to move to. He rented a well furnished house that had a surgery, two parlours and three bedrooms.

In 1857 he became a coroner for the area. Using whatever transport was available to him, he was required to reach a body before decomposition set in. The court would then sit at the inn nearest to the incident.

Dr Bell was soon in financial trouble again and became insolvent for the third time in his life. He had run up accounts after buying a piano forte for his parlour, books for his daughters, furnishings and expensive clothes. Perhaps to overcome these financial problems, he wrote and published an essay titled "The Wear and Tear on Human Life" and another one titled "On the Origins, Progress and Treatment of Smallpox". It was however more likely that Campbelltown's healthy population had reduced his income. His business had fallen by 400 pounds from 1858 to 1859. He was charging 1 pound and 1 shilling for a visit and about 10 shillings for medicine.

Despite his financial worries, Dr Bell was involved with a number of committees in the town. Some of his activities included: the formation of a Benevolent Socity, chairman to raise funds for the celebrations for the opening of the railway in 1858, raising funds for the Donegal Relief Fund for the starving peasantry and an inaugural member of the Campbelltown School of Arts Committee.

It was his experiences as a doctor that most fascinated me. A search of Trove revealed some interesting, challenging and distressing calls for Dr Bell during his years in Campbelltown. Some of these included amputating a boy's thumb after a shooting accident, attending to a child after a tree had fallen on him, a girl who had died after falling out of a cart, a 17 year old girl dying after her clothes caught on fire and the scalding of a 20 month old girl who pulled a plate of boiling milk and flour over her. There were many inquests that he was needed for and many of these were as a result of intemperance.

Dr Bell moved to Picton in 1862. He later moved to Ashfield and practised in the city. His health began to decline and he became insolvent for a fourth and fifth time. He was advised to take a holiday to a warm climate but he never made this. Instead he moved back to Picton where he died in 1871. The end had come for a wonderfully talented medical man whose brilliance had touched the lives of many.

Written by Andrew Allen


LISTON, Carol 1988
Campbelltown: The Bicentennial History
North Sydney: Allen and Unwin

Dr William Bell (1815-1871): Experiences of a 19th Century Doctor on either side of the Blue Mountains
In Blue Mountains History Journal
1; 2010

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