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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nathan, Charles (1816–1872)

by Catherine Mackerras

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Charles Nathan (1816-1872), surgeon, was born in London, eldest child of Isaac Nathan and his first wife Rosetta, née Worthington (d.1824). His father's cruelty and stepmother's indifference led him to run away at 13 and apprentice himself to an apothecary (L.S.A., 1837). He enrolled at Westminster Hospital School of Medicine and won scholarships throughout his four-year course. Graduating with honours, he began a practice in Belgrave Square, but decided to join his family in migrating to Sydney. Arriving in the York on 7 April 1841, he started a successful practice in Elizabeth Street North. In 1842 at Christ Church St Laurence, he married Emmeline Harriet, daughter of Henry Fisher, a prosperous wine merchant.

In 1845 Nathan was one of the original four doctors appointed to the new Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary. In June 1847 he and Dr Belisario administered the first anaesthetic in Australia. Bitterly attacked for this innovation in the Australian Medical Journal, Nathan was defended in an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald. He encouraged the use of ether at the infirmary, particularly for manipulating congenital dislocation of the hip, but later preferred chloroform which he administered to his own wife in childbirth. An honorary F.R.C.S. in 1857, he was called when the Duke of Edinburgh was wounded on 12 March 1868.

On his retirement from the infirmary in 1864 Nathan had become a consulting surgeon and later was also a consultant at St Vincent's Hospital. A founder of the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association, he was also a foundation member of the Senate of the University of Sydney, an examiner in medicine and a fellow of St Paul's College. He was a member of the Medical Board of New South Wales in 1854-72 and a vice-chairman of the Australian Mutual Provident Society.

Nathan's baritone voice had been trained by his father, music being the family's greatest recreation. He was a foundation member of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia and a member of the Sydney Philharmonic Society. A fervent Evangelical, he was a warden and trustee of St James's Church, King Street, and daily read a chapter from the New Testament in the original Greek which he had taught himself. Generous, kindly and tolerant, he died from septicaemia at his home in Macquarie Street, Sydney, on 20 September 1872 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Camperdown cemetery. He was survived by his wife, four sons and eight daughters. His eldest daughter, Eliza Anne, married Sir Normand MacLaurin.

A portrait is held by his family.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Plarr, Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons (Lond, 1930)
  • C. Mackerras, The Hebrew Melodist (Syd, 1963)
  • N. J. Dunlop, ‘An essay relating chiefly to anaesthetics and their introduction to Australia and Tasmania’, Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Jan 1927
  • D. Miller, ‘The medical pioneers of St. Vincent's Hospital’, Sydney University Post-graduate Committee of Medicine, Bulletin, 13 (1957), no 3
  • C. Kemp diary (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Catherine Mackerras, 'Nathan, Charles (1816–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


20 September 1872
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence