First Fleet’s Surgeon-General
John White, destined afterwards to play an important part in the founding of the Colony of New South Wales, was born in Sussex in 1750, possibly at Worthing, but we have no record of the exact place of his birth, of who or what his forefathers may have been. (Researchers have since found that John White was born around 1756, son of John of Drumaran, near Mullaghdun, County Fermanagh, Ireland, his mother had been a Miss Lendrum of Fivemiletown).
Designed for the medical profession, he would pass an examination at Surgeons’ Hall, London, followed by another before the Transport Board, after which he would be qualified to receive from the Admiralty a warrant as surgeon’s mate in a sea-going vessel of the Royal Navy. We find him, at the age of 28, appointed on June 26, 1778, surgeon’s mate of HMS Wasp, a small vessel. Smollett has left us a graphic account of the ups and downs of a naval surgeon’s life in 1740 and in the years which had elapsed since then and the entry into the service very little progress had been made. Till 1805, neither the surgeon of a man-of-war nor his assistants wore any regular uniform.
In 1780, John White was promoted to the rank of surgeon, and after serving in various vessels was, in 1786, appointed surgeon of HMS Irresistible of 74 guns, a third-rate, built at Harwich in 1782, and commanded by Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, a friend of Lord Nelson’s and afterwards Controller of the Navy.
Bound for Botany Bay
On October 16, 1786, Captain Hamond recommended Surgeon John White to Lord Sydney, as a capable young man of an adventurous disposition, excellently qualified to take charge of the medical department of an overseas expedition such as that of the proposed settlement at Botany Bay, in New Holland. Eight days afterwards White was appointed Surgeon General of the expedition, and of the Colony. We should have known comparatively little of John White’s activities had he not kept a journal of his voyage, and notes on his residence in New South Wales; this interesting record was dedicated to one whom we must conclude to have been his very great friend, Thomas Wilson. The first entry, under March 5, 1787, is as follows:
I this day left London, charged with despatches from the Secretary of State’s office, and from the Admiralty, relative to the embarkation of that part of the marines and convicts intended for Botany Bay assembled at Plymouth and on the evening of the seventh, after travelling two days of the most incessant rain I ever remember, arrived at Plymouth, where the Charlotte and Friendship transports were in readiness to receive them.
On the evening of March 11, there being little wind, the Charlotte and Friendship were towed out into Plymouth Sound, by the boats of the guard-ships in the harbour. Thence they sailed to Spithead, where they arrived on March 17, and anchored on the Mother Bank, among the rest of the transports and victuallers intended for the same expedition under the conduct of his Majesty’s ship Sirius. Surgeon White immediately visited all the other transports, and was surprised to find the general health of the convicts was good.
At length all was ready, and on May 13, 1787, the expedition set sail. The Charlotte, on which White was established, being a slow sailer, was towed out to sea by HMS Hyaena, 24 guns, which ship accompanied the Botany Bay fleet till May 20, when being 100 leagues to the westward of Scilly, she was sent back by Captain Phillip with letters. At sea we may picture Surgeon White as being fully occupied in attending to his medical duties and many charges, and keeping them and their quarters in as sanitary a condition as he was able. On June 2 the fleet passed the Salvages, low-lying rocks of which the Charlotte had no chart, and next day they arrived and anchored at Santa Cruz, Tenerife, where fresh provision and stores were taken on board.
Crossing the Equator
They left Tenerife on June 10, and after calling at the Cape de Verde islands ran down to the tropics; when crossing the Equator the Charlotte had a narrow escape of being run into by the Lady Penrhyn, on which ship all hands were so busy in celebrating the event, or, as White put it, deeply engaged in sluicing and ducking all those on board who had never crossed it, that they forgot to look where they were going.
On August 5, to the intense delight of every one, the fleet came to an anchor in the harbour of Rio de Janeiro, where fresh provisions soon brought health to the invalids. Surgeon White was delighted with Rio, and left it with great regret.
On September 4, 1787, having been well provided with all kinds of stores and fresh provisions, the fleet left Rio de Janeiro, and started on its long and weary passage to the east ward, at the end of which lay New Holland and Botany Bay; the only break on the way being a call at the Cape of Good Hope. On this passage across the South Atlantic little of note appears to have happened, except that a fine baby girl was born, and one of the male convicts fell overboard and was drowned. On October 13, the fleet anchored in Table Bay, but owing to the lack of cordiality on the part of the Dutch Governor had some little difficulty in obtain fresh provision and stores. On November 13 they sailed from the cape on the final part of their long journey. Christmas passed uneventfully, but the boatswain of the Fishburne, having celebrated the arrival of the New Year not wisely but too well, fell whilst intoxicated from the topsall yard, and bruised himself so badly that being, as White says, highly scorbutic, the parts soon mortified, and he died on January 6, 1788, to the extreme regret of his captain. On January 9, died Edward Thomson, a convict worn out with a melancholy and long confinement.
At last the great voyage was over, and on January 20 they anchored in Botany Bay, and caught in their seine-net a welcome supply of fresh fish, including beam, mullet and large rays. On January 26, as we all know, the fleet left Botany Bay, and anchored in Port Jackson, and preparations for founding the settlement were commenced.
A house is built
On January 29 the frame house which had been constructed by Smith, of St George’s Fields, London, for the Governor was sent on shore to be erected, and during the course of the week all the troops and convicts were landed. Then, unfortunately the true camp dysentery and scurvy broke out, and White had hastily to improvise a canvas hospital, which was soon filled to overflowing. The erection of the first permanent hospital was begun in 1788, on the west side of Sydney Cove. White had on shore as his official staff Assistant Surgeons Balmain, Arndell, Considen, a junior, John Irving; these were to remain as the permanent medical establishment of the new colony.
Being intensely interested in botany and natural Dr White found in the new country one long succession of surprises, and frequently went on exploring expeditions round the settlement. Trees, birds, animals, fish, snakes, spiders, and aboriginal weapons are amongst the subjects referred to, and illustrated, in his Journal, which was published in London in 1790.
For some reason or another, the previously existing friendly feeling which White entertained for his assistant, William Balmain, changed into an intense dislike, which led to the first duel fought in Australia. John Esty, a marine of the Scarborough, who kept at this period a most interesting diary, tells us, under the date of August 12, 1788. This day, the Batlion marched from the Prade to the flag-staff and fired 3 volles. The officers all dined with the govner. This night, Mr Wight, the Surgeon General, and Mr Belmaine, the 2nd assistant fired their pistols at each other, and slightly wounded each other.
Surgeon-General White applied for permission to go to England on leave in 1792, but his request was not granted till 1794. He sailed for England in the Daedalus, arriving in the old country in July 1795.
Retires from Service at Sea
In August 1796, he was informed by the Colonial Office that he must either return to his post immediately or resign it, and he chose the latter alternative. After serving on the Royal William till 1800, White went for three years to Sheerness Dockyard as surgeon and then for the next 17 years was surgeon of Chatham Dockyard, from which he retired on January 15, 1820, but remained on the retired list till the end of 1824. He then appears to have settled at Worthing, where he died on February 20, 1832, at the ripe old age of 82.
Mr George G Reeve, of Annandale, a great-grandson of Surgeon White (his grandmother was the doctor’s daughter, Anne), has recently, after much research, been so happy as to discover that his great-grandfather is buried in St Mary’s Church, Broadwater, Worthing, beneath a flat stone slab in the lower aisle between the choir-stalls; on the stone is briefly inscribed. “John White, M.D., R.N., 1832”. (Noted in the publication Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales by John White, with a Biographical Introduction by Rex Rienits (1961), page 32, John White, Australia’s first surgeon-general, had died at Worthing, near Brighton, on 20 February 1832, at the age of 75. His burial was recorded a week later at St Mary’s parish church, Broadwater, and for many years afterwards a small tablet recording the event could be seen in the lower aisle between the choir stalls. According to the Rev. Peter Marrow, Rectory, Broadwater, 26 May 1961, the tablet seems to have disappeared).
Like that of Governor Phillip, this quiet resting place of another of that band of great Englishmen who founded the first settlement in this country of limitless possibilities, has come to light after many years, and will, one may hope, from another link in the enduring chain which binds us to the mother country.
This article was written by Flinders Barr on the life of Surgeon John White. It appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 – 1954), Saturday 3 October 1931, page 7, and was sourced from the National Library of Australia’s web-site TROVE
John White and Rachel Turner Sydney Cove
In 1790 John White and Watkin Tench set out in a boat to greet the new arrival into Sydney Cove. She was the Lady Juliana who bought some food but also a cargo of 222 women convicts. On board was Rachel Turner who became White’s housekeeper and afterwards his mistress. Rachel had been sentenced to seven years transportation for the theft of some clothing; her age on arrival was given as 27. John and Rachel’s son Andrew Douglas White was baptised in November 1793. White sailed for England in December 1794, but remained in contact with Rachel and the child and provided financial assistance even after her marriage in Sydney in 1796 to Thomas Moore, a free ship’s carpenter and boat builder and founder of the Moore Theological College.
Andrew Douglas White
In 1800 Andrew White, then aged six, sailed to England aboard the Reliance to join his father, step-mother and half-siblings. He was educated there and later joined the Royal Engineers and fought in the Battle of Waterloo; staying in service in France until 1818. Andrew returned Sydney and to his mother he had never really known in 1823; the reunion was obviously a successful one, as he left her is most prized possession, his Waterloo medal. On 18 June 1835 Andrew married Ann Mackenzie, eldest daughter of AK Mackenzie JP of Dockairn, Bathhurst. Andrew died in 1837, after a short illness in Parramatta, aged 44 years.
John White’s marriages in England
On 29 February 1796, two years after returning to England aboard the Daedalus, John White married Elizabeth Lasack at St Martin’s in the Fields, Westminister . Their children were Clara Christiana, Richard Hamond and Augusta Catherine Anne.
John White’s second wife was the widow, Mrs Elizabeth Hope, whom in married in April 1829 at St Nicholas’ Brighton, Sussex. Their home was on the sea front at No.13 Bedford Square.
John White’s Journal
John White’s Journal of Voyage to New South Wales was first published in 1790. One of the important First Fleet Journals, it was the first substantial natural history book on Australia.
This book gives a fascinating account of the voyage to Australia and the first months of the settlement fromn the perspective of the expeditions head medical man. John White was the Surgeon-General to the new settlement, responsible for the health of the convicts and crew on the voyage to Port Jackson.
An extract from John White’s Journal:
5 March 1787: This Day left London, charged with dispatches from the Secretary State’s Office, and from the Admiralty relative to the embarkation of that part of the marines and convicts intended for Botany Bay; and on the evening of the seventh, after travelling two days of the most incessant rain I ever remember, arrived at Plymouth where the Charlotte and Friendship transports were in readiness to receive them. General Collins, commander in chief at the port, lost no time in carrying the order I had brought into execution: so that on the morning of the ninth the detachments of marines were on board, with all the baggage. But the next day being ushered in with a very heavy gale of wind, made I impracticable to remove the convicts from on board the Dunkirk prison ship, where they were confined. So violent was the gale, that his Majesty’s ship the Druid, of thirty-two guns, was forced to cut away her main-mast to prevent her driving on shore.
The weather being moderate the following day, the convicts were put on board the transports, and placed in the different apartments allotted for them: all secured in irons, except the women. In the evening, as there was but little wind, we were towed by the boats belonging to the guardships out of Hamaoze, where the Dunkirk lay, into Plymouth Sound.
(The manuscript of White’s journal was sent to England on either the Golden Grove or Fishburn, which sailed from Sydney on 19 November 1788. By the same conveyance White’s assistant, Considen, wrote to Sir Joseph Banks advising that he was sending him some stuffed birds and kangaroos, two live “opossums”, two live “parakeets” and some specimens of red and yellow gum. He also sent some native sarsaparilla, which he had found “a good-anti-scorbutic).
Medical Care in Colonial Times
The true begging of medical practice in Australia dates from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. The Fleet carried eight surgeons and two surgeons-mates. The chief surgeon of the First Fleet, John White, was spoken of as “a young man of great credit to his profession”. During the voyage of the First Fleet, the efforts of the surgeons on board were so effective that the death toll aboard the ships of the fleet was less than 50 out of nearly 1500 aboard the ships.
In the first days of settlement, there were many hazards for the settlers to contend with. Weak from the long sea-voyage, unaccustomed to the heat of the Australian summer, the settlers and convicts often fell victim to a variety of illnesses, scurvy, dysentery, sunstroke and snakebite, all swept through the early settlement.
In the first years of Australia’s settlement the skill and resourcefulness of Surgeon White helped to save many lives. Tea tree leaves were brewed as an anti-scurvy measure. Oils were extracted from the eucalypts, and also from the native myrtle and peppermint, Wild spinach was correctly identified by White, who advised its use.
For all this, White, as Chief Surgeon was paid 10/- a day and his assistants 5/-. In Sydney Cove, there was no hospital for the sick, other than the bark and canvas structures which had been erected after settlement. In 1890 an epidemic of smallpox swept the colony. In England, the idea of inoculation, developed by Edward Jenner, had only begun to gain acceptance. In 1804 John Savage, a friend of Edward Jenner, introduced smallpox vaccination to Sydney.
Curiously enough, there were no doctors among the convicts, a sad waste of talent in so isolated a place as Sydney. The first convict to be emancipated was John Irving, a medical man. A public order was issued in May 1790: The governor, in consequence of the unremitted good behaviour and meritorious conduct of John Irving, is pleased to remit the remainder of the term for which he was sentenced to transportation. He is therefore to be considered as restored to all those rights and privileges which had been suspended in consequence of the sentence of the law. And as such, he is hereby appointed to act as an assistant to the surgeon at Norfolk Island.
from an article by Brian J McKinlay, Geelong Advertiser and printed in the Folio June 2001
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© First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc 2012