Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roberts, Sir Alfred (1823–1898)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Sir Alfred Roberts (1823-1898), surgeon, was born in Finsbury Circus, London, son of John Roberts, surgeon. He was educated at St Paul's School and Guy's Hospital and in 1844 became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. He practised for some years with his father in London, then set up in Rye, Sussex, where in 1850 he married Susan Eliza Spencer. In 1854 he arrived in Sydney and from February 1855 to 1870 was an honorary surgeon at the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary and later a consulting surgeon.

Worried by the inefficient nursing at the Infirmary, Roberts appealed to Henry Parkes, who in 1866 asked Florence Nightingale to select a lady superintendent and nurses to train other young women. She sent Lucy Osburn but Roberts clashed with her and told the 1873 royal commission on public charities that Miss Nightingale was disappointed with Miss Osburn and that he thought she had failed. Parkes intervened and wrote to Miss Nightingale that 'Mr Roberts is a respectable professional man … but he is … a fussy, officious dilettante in all matters of sanitary reform, who spoils his own efforts to be useful by his desire to be the authority on all occasions'.

Roberts was a director and honorary secretary of the Prince Alfred Hospital Fund from its inception in 1868. In October 1871 he visited England and Europe with a view to designing a model hospital. He had favoured adding a 'Prince Alfred' wing to the Sydney Infirmary but changed his mind. Due to his 'zeal and assiduity' the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital was opened in 1882; he remained a director and honorary consulting surgeon until 1898 and in August supervised the renovation of the operating theatre.

In 1858 Roberts had become an elective trustee of the Australian Museum; he was a councillor of the local Philosophical (Royal) Society to which he read three papers. He was honorary surgeon to the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children and to the Clergy Daughters' School, Waverley; a member of the Official Board of Visitors to Hospitals for the Insane, and president from 1876; medical advisor to the Railway Department of New South Wales; a member of the Board of Health; chief medical officer for the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Co.; member of the committee of management of the Technological Museum; examiner in medicine of the University of Sydney; a member and later chairman of the City of Sydney Improvement Board; a New South Wales commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880; a committee-man of the Charity Organization Society and honorary secretary and vice-president of the Carrington Convalescent Hospital. He was also responsible for the construction of the Coast Hospital, Little Bay, for contagious diseases, helped establish the Hospital for Sick Children and designed hospitals for Glen Innes and Mudgee. In 1881 he combated a smallpox epidemic and told cabinet that he favoured compulsory vaccination.

Friend and physician of Parkes and the Macarthurs, Roberts was a member of the Australian Club. Knighted in 1883, he died at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains on 19 December 1898, aged 75, of heart disease and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at almost £19,500. He divided his multifarious goods and chattels among his family and friends and their children.

Select Bibliography

  • F. MacDonnell, Miss Nightingale's Young Ladies (Syd, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870, 2, 554, 569, 1881, 4, 1051, 1882, 1, 69
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, 20 Jan 1899
  • R. S. Skirving, ‘Surgery and surgeons in … Sydney over forty years ago’, Medical Journal of Australia, 13 Mar 1926
  • Bulletin, 7 Oct 1882
  • Sydney Mail, 24 Dec 1898
  • Town and Country Journal, 24 Dec 1898
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Roberts, Sir Alfred (1823–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-sir-alfred-4485/text7325, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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