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Crowther, William Lodewyk (1817–1885)

by W. E. L. H. Crowther

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Lodewyk Crowther (1817-1885), by unknown photographer

William Lodewyk Crowther (1817-1885), by unknown photographer

W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125643528

William Lodewyk Crowther (1817-1885), surgeon, naturalist and parliamentarian, was born on 15 April 1817 at Haarlem, Holland, the elder child of Dr William Crowther (1788-1839) and his wife Sarah (1795-1863), daughter of George Pearson, sometime mayor of Macclesfield, Cheshire, England. William senior and his family migrated in the Cumberland (Captain Carns) and arrived in January 1825 at Hobart Town, where he set up practice. He was the fourth son of Philip Wyatt Crowther, comptroller at the Guildhall, London, and his wife Sarah, née Lewis, of Montgomery, Wales, and had been educated at Stockport, Cheshire. After his patrimony was exhausted he studied at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospitals (M.R.C.S., 1819). He brought with him to Hobart testimonials from Sir Astley Cooper and Dr Davis, physician to the Queen. However, his prospects were soon ruined when he lost an action against Captain Carns for assault. He also lost a similar action brought by a fellow passenger, Alfred Stephen. The two cases cost him more than mere damages and costs; most seriously they destroyed his hopes of official favour and government appointment. With a burning sense of injustice he ranged himself with the anti-Arthur faction; for more than a decade he attended their protest meetings, joined in their petitions for reform and at a meeting in 1838 helped to launch one of the early resolutions in the struggle for cessation of convict transportation. Meanwhile he built up a private practice and, as a pioneer in Friendly Society work, formed in 1834 the Hobart Town Dispensary and Sick Poor Society where for 3s. a month members received all the attention and medicine they and their families required. He attempted to introduce the grey rabbit in 1826, lectured to the Mechanics' Institute on education and geology, and in the press published papers on typhoid and the treatment of bilious fevers. His enthusiastic proposals for a local school of medicine were ignored, but he taught and trained at least four apprentices and when they were denied anatomical studies at the Colonial Hospital he advocated the creation of a court of medical examiners. Some weeks after a heavy fall from his horse he died aged 51 at his home, Sans Souci, near Hobart, on 25 December 1839; his gravestone in St David's Park bears the apt quotation, 'Not ignorant of evil himself he learned to pity the wretched'. He was survived by his widow, his daughter Elizabeth (b.1819) and William Lodewyk. Elizabeth was educated at Ellinthorp Hall at Ross and on 10 December 1835 married William Blyth. They lived at Bushey Park, near New Norfolk, where she herself educated their six sons and eight daughters, many of whom made notable contributions to public life.

William Lodewyk became a boarder at Claiborne's Academy, Longford, about 1828, and on his 120-mile (193 km) walks to and from school in holidays developed a strong interest in natural history. In 1832 he was apprenticed to his father for five years and then became a partner as 'a surgeon apothecary and accoucheur'. For many years he had trapped birds and animals, and took the skins and live specimens he had collected with him when he sailed as surgeon in the Emu in February 1839. He reached London in June and sold his whole collection, including a pair of Tasmanian devils and 493 skins, to the Earl of Derby at a price which was sufficient to keep him and pay his fees at St Thomas's Hospital (M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., 1841), and also for another year of study in Paris. There he not only acquired knowledge in the then best post-graduate school in Europe but was also infected by 'hospital' or typhus fever. At the British embassy in Brussels on 12 November 1841 he married his cousin Sarah Victoria Marie Louise, daughter of Colonel A. B. Muller of the 7th Regiment, equerry to the Duke of Kent.

Crowther returned with his wife to Hobart in 1842 and took over his father's practice. He rose rapidly in his profession and was appointed to the Court of Medical Examiners. His main interest was surgery, especially of the bladder for stone, a subject on which he contributed at least two papers to the Lancet. As a result his reputation spread and he treated many cases from neighbouring colonies. In 1860 he was appointed one of the four honorary medical officers at the Hobart General Hospital, but was suspended in March 1869 over charges of mutilating the body of William Lanney, the last male Tasmanian Aboriginal. An inquiry showed that two mutilations had taken place, the first at the Colonial Hospital, the other at the cemetery the night of the burial. Drs Crowther and G. Stokell, resident medical officer at the hospital, were suspected of the first, the Royal Society of Tasmania of the second. A petition with forty-eight pages of closely packed signatures was sent to Governor (Sir) Charles Du Cane seeking annulment of Crowther's suspension, without success.

Crowther was interested in speculation and his interests ranged far beyond Tasmania. In the 1850s he had sawmills in the Huon district that were later moved to the tiers behind Kettering where he had a large property; he sent the timber in his own ships to other Australian colonies and New Zealand and exported frame houses ready for erection to the Californian goldfields. His whaling ships, the Offley, Isabella, Sapphire, Velocity and Elizabeth Jane, were widely used in the Southern Ocean; in one expedition the Offley went as far as Kerguelen Island for sea-elephant oil. His schooner Marie Louise explored the equatorial Pacific Islands for guano; no new deposits were found but he leased Lady Elliot Island, Bird Island and Wreck Reef in the Coral Sea, placed shore parties there and shipped guano to Tasmania and the mainland with much success. His ships often had a routine run: timber to Otago and its goldfields, thence to the Coral Sea and home with guano, whaling as opportunity offered. Later he transferred his interests to the new Anglo-Australian Guano Co.

Crowther also continued his natural history collection and was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Zoological Society. He also sent to Sir William Flower at the Royal College of Surgeons skeletons of fauna, mostly Cetacean, the largest being a skeleton of a sperm whale; in March 1869 he was awarded the gold medal of the college and was elected an honorary fellow in 1874.

Crowther was also active in public affairs. Although a foundation member of the Tasmanian Club, he regarded parliament as his real club. Under the banner of 'Retrenchment or Ruin' he was elected to the House of Assembly as a member for Hobart where he was most popular with the public. He resigned but in 1869-85 held the Hobart seat in the Legislative Council. In 1876-77 he was a minister without portfolio in Thomas Reibey's administration. Invited to form his own ministry in December 1878, he was premier until October 1879, the first medical practitioner to hold that office in Tasmania. His chief recreation was quail and game shooting, and exercise in open country and bushland. He also delighted in whist, playing with three personal friends in rotation at their homes. With his eleven children he led a full domestic life. When he contracted prostatic complications he lived only for a week and died on 12 April 1885. In many ways he had been impulsive, hard and dour but his patients remembered him for his profound sympathy and kindness and their belief in his qualities was absolute. An impressive statue erected by public subscription was unveiled in Franklin Square on 9 January 1889. In 1935 a face mask was placed in the gallery of the Institute of Anatomy, Canberra, among those of other eminent Australians.

His eldest son, Edward Lodewyk, was born on 3 October 1843 at Hobart. After private education he went to the Hutchins School and was a pupil for two years at the Hobart General Hospital. In January 1862 he visited his father's friends in Victorian towns and sailed from Sydney in the Alfred. In England he visited his grandmother's family at Macclesfield and Sir William Flower, while he was at Guy's Hospital, London (M.R.C.S., L.S.A., 1866). He also studied ophthalmology at Moorfields and obstetrics at Birmingham. At the University of Edinburgh (L.R.C.P. 1866) he was so impressed by the quality of Scottish teaching that he went to Aberdeen (M.B., Ch.M., 1867; M.D. with hons, 1871). He then practised for six years at Hogsthorpe in Lincolnshire. He liked the Fen country and people, especially the tenant farmers who let him shoot over their properties for hare, partridge and seasonal game. He was also interested in providing a lifeboat for Skegness, joined its crew and at times went to save life in wrecks and strandings. At Macclesfield he had married his distant cousin, Elizabeth Rosaline Pearson; they had no children.

Crowther decided to return home. As surgeon in the Sobraon he sailed from Plymouth with his wife and two dogs in September 1874. In Hobart his full entry into practice was gradual for in 1875 Tasmanians were elated by the discovery of tin and other minerals. Leaving his father to watch his patients he made several prospecting expeditions in north-eastern Tasmania. He found only one mine, the Marie Louise, of any extent and its yield was not sensational; he lost money chiefly by backing the ventures of others. He had served as a sergeant in the Hobart Town Volunteer Artillery before leaving for London and in England he held the same rank in the Lincolnshire militia and had volunteered for active service with Lord Napier's expedition into Abyssinia. Like many others Crowther was alarmed by Russian infiltration towards India and he decided to reform the neglected Southern Tasmanian Volunteer Artillery. With carefully selected recruits and experienced officers he helped to make an efficient unit, despite official reluctance to provide powder and shell for gun practice; their discipline and appearance with field guns had a steadying effect when martial law was proclaimed in the Chiniquy riots.

Crowther had many other interests. Like his father he was appointed to the Court of Medical Examiners, serving as its president for many years, and as honorary surgeon at the Hobart General Hospital. In the House of Assembly he represented Queenborough in 1878-86 and 1897-1909, Kingborough in 1886-97 and Denison in 1909-12. In World War I he was an instructor and lecturer in local detachments of the Red Cross. Devoted to horticulture, he had extensive glass houses at his home, Hanby Lodge, Macquarie Street. He was popular as a skilful surgeon and physician and as a family and lodge doctor, served on the Council of the University of Tasmania, on the diocesan council, as president of the Dental Board and became noted for his benevolence to the poor. He also acted as coroner and justice of the peace. Practising until 1924 when an effusion of the knee led to his retirement, he spent his last years at Oyster Cove, near Kettering, where he died on 9 August 1931. He was buried with full military honours. He was predeceased by his first wife, who died in 1882, and by his second, Emily Ida, eldest daughter of John Hamilton. He was survived by his third wife and by one son and five daughters of his second marriage.

Portraits are held by the author and a larger oil of W. L. Crowther is in Parliament House, Hobart.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Bartley, Opals and Agates (Brisb, 1892)
  • W. E. L. H. Crowther, ‘Some aspects of medical practice in Van Diemen's Land, 1825-1839’, Medical Journal of Australia, 27 Apr 1935
  • W. E. L. H. Crowther, ‘On the Discovery of Tasmanian Aboriginal Remains at Mt. Dromedary, Tasmania’, Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1938, pp 209-11
  • W. E. L. H. Crowther, ‘A Surgeon as Whaleship Owner’, Medical Journal of Australia, 19 June 1943, pp 549-54
  • W. E. L. H. Crowther, ‘A Background to Medical Practice and the Training of Surgical Apprentices and Pupils in Van Diemen's Land’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, vol 21, no 3, Feb 1952, pp 185-200
  • W. E. L. H. Crowther, ‘Surgeon Apprentice and Naturalist: Being Incidents from the Journal of William L. Crowther During the Voyage of the Barque "Emu" from Van Diemen's Land to London Dock, February 24 to June 23, 1839’, Medical Journal of Australia, 19 Mar 1960, pp 446-52
  • Mercury (Hobart), 13 Apr 1885, 10 Aug 1931
  • correspondence file under Crowther (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSO 7/23/127 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

W. E. L. H. Crowther, 'Crowther, William Lodewyk (1817–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crowther-william-lodewyk-3297/text5013, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 30 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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