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A French naval surgeon’s account of disease, treatments and hospitals in colonial Sydney, 1873

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Early Australian environmental, social and public health conditions observed by a French “man of science”

In 1873, the French warship Atalante visited Sydney for repairs. The vessel’s surgeon, Dr F Bourse, had time to observe environmental, social and public health conditions in Sydney and to visit its hospitals. In the National Library of Australia, among an obscure and disparate collection of 19th century medical documents bound into a single volume, one of us (S B) chanced upon an original reprint of Bourse’s account of his stay, published in French in 1876 in the Archives de médecine navale.1 We have translated this account, which forms the primary source for this article. It reveals an observer clearly impressed to find a thriving metropolis, with health care in some institutions comparable to that in Europe, notwithstanding what he regarded as an obvious undersupply of hospital services.

The Atalante left the French port of L’Orient in August 1872 on a voyage encompassing Brazil, the French colonies of Tahiti and New Caledonia, Australasia, Peru and the United States.2 When the vessel visited Sydney between 5 July and 17 September 1873, it underwent extensive dry dock repairs on Cockatoo Island. Several photographs of the ship lying at anchor in Port Jackson and undergoing repairs in the Fitzroy…