Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cussen, Patrick Edward (1792–1849)

by Bryan Gandevia

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Patrick Edward Cussen (1792-1849), medical practitioner, was born in Ireland but, like many other Irishmen of the period, he obtained his medical education at Edinburgh University (M.D., 1820). He and his wife, the widow of Dr Griffin of Limerick, arrived in Sydney in the Majestic from Liverpool via Hobart Town in August 1837. Within a month Cussen had been appointed assistant surgeon for the settlement at Port Phillip, at a salary of 7s. 6d. a day with £50 a year lodging allowance, in succession to Drs Alexander Thomson and Barry Cotter.

Arriving in Melbourne in the steamer James Watt in September, he lived first in Market Street and later on an allotment facing Lonsdale Street near William Street, which he bought for £39 at the second Melbourne land sale in November 1837. Descriptions of the first 'hospital' vary, but agree that it was a totally inadequate hut of wattle and daub or similar structure, that its two rooms were shared with the constable, the magistrate and the post office, and that similar, if not worse, conditions prevailed when a new building was constructed to serve as 'lock-up' and infirmary. Situated initially towards the western end of what is now Flinders Lane, it was a 'hovel' about which Dr Cussen early protested. The hospital was intended for government and military personnel, but out of 'common humanity' Superintendent La Trobe was obliged on occasion to make concessions to allow the admission of paupers. Cussen provided the data on which La Trobe based his appeal to Governor Sir George Gipps for the establishment of a general hospital in Melbourne, and thus indirectly aided the humble beginning of that institution in 1841.

In 1839 Cussen performed the first known surgical operation in Victoria, an amputation of an injured arm. He was appointed president of the first local Medical Board in 1845, and was also the first public vaccinator. In 1846 he and two others took the initiative in forming the Port Phillip Medical Association, of which he was first president. The association rapidly established ethical standards, a scale of fees and a library, invaluable functions in a new and isolated community. Although its meetings, held at the homes of members, were said to be 'more convivial than scientific' (some were more controversial), the third scientific meeting heard a historic paper by David Thomas on the first use of ether anaesthesia in the colony, less than a year after its discovery was announced in America.

At first lunatics had to be confined in the gaol in Cussen's charge; he was the victim of the first known assault in Melbourne by a demented patient on his medical attendant, being rendered semi-conscious by a kick in the stomach. When in 1848 the Melbourne (later Yarra Bend) Lunatic Asylum was opened Cussen became visiting medical officer, and later he often took patients from the gaol to the asylum in his own carriage. Although the government hospital was probably not overburdened with patients from the young and relatively healthy population of the early years, Cussen at times had up to fifteen lunatics and a hundred or so prisoners in his care in the overcrowded gaol; it was a tribute to his supervision that, in spite of these adverse conditions and the occasional appearance of fever, only two deaths are said to have occurred in the first decade. He took an active part in the formation of the Melbourne Club in 1838 and in 1839 of the Melbourne Union Benefit Society, a noteworthy early attempt at collective social security on a voluntary basis.

'Old Cussen' was described as busy, indefatigable, fussy, good-humoured but choleric, 'white-headed, red-faced and brown-coated … in a chronic state of tribulation'. He died, allegedly of chronic heart disease, in May 1849, in which month his promotion to colonial surgeon was approved. There appear to have been no children of the marriage although he was survived by his married stepdaughter. He was a colourful character and an efficient public servant, well suited to be the first leader of his profession in a new settlement.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • G. T. Howard, ‘Port Phillip's Early Doctors, 1835-1839’, Medical Journal of Australia, 17 Mar 1934, pp 361-66
  • H. B. Graham, ‘Happenings of the Now Long Past: The Centenary of the Medical Society of Victoria’, Medical Journal of Australia, 16 Aug 1952, pp 213-47
  • K. F. Russell, ‘The Royal Melbourne Hospital and its Early Surgeons, 1841-1900’, Royal Melbourne Hospital Clinical Reports, centenary volume, Aug 1948, pp 15-26
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 July 1933.

Citation details

Bryan Gandevia, 'Cussen, Patrick Edward (1792–1849)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cussen-patrick-edward-1946/text2335, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 11 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

1792
Ireland

Death

May 1849
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation