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White, John (1756–1832)

by Rex Rienits

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John White (1756?-1832), naval surgeon, entered the navy on 26 June 1778 as third surgeon's mate in H.M.S. Wasp. He received his diploma of the Company of Surgeons on 2 August 1781, and in the next five years his naval service took him as far as the West Indies and India. On 26 June 1786 he became surgeon of the Irresistible, and four months later, on the recommendation of Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, he was appointed chief surgeon of the expedition to establish a convict settlement at Botany Bay.

Of almost 1500 people in the eleven ships of the First Fleet 778 were convicts, many in poor health from long imprisonment. It is to the credit of White and his assistants that on the voyage of more than eight months there were only thirty-four deaths. Outbreaks of scurvy and dysentery and lack of accommodation for the sick were his first problems in the new colony. Within a year the incidence of sickness was greatly decreased, a hospital was built, and White, a keen amateur naturalist, found time to accompany Governor Arthur Phillip on two journeys of exploration. On 12 August 1788 he fought a duel with his third assistant, William Balmain, in which, according to one account, both were slightly wounded. Ill feeling between them continued for several years.

On joining the First Fleet White had begun to keep a journal, in which he made many notes of birds examined in the colony. In November 1788 he sent this to a London friend, Thomas Wilson; edited probably by Wilson it was published in 1790 as Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. Accompanying the text were sixty-five engravings illustrating the natural history and products of the colony, drawn in England from specimens sent by White, with descriptions by English specialists. He also sent drawings and possibly specimens for The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (London, 1789). His own book was a big success. A German edition followed, and later there were translations into Swedish and French.

Meanwhile the infant colony had reached the edge of famine. White helped in the erection of a signal station at South Head and was among the officers who volunteered to fish every second night to supplement the rations. The arrival in June 1790 of the Second Fleet tested White and his staff to their utmost. About 500 convicts were landed dying or seriously ill. Despite lack of medicines and hospital accommodation White and his assistants nursed more than half of them back to health. A similar crisis arose with the arrival of the Third Fleet between July and September 1791. At one time about 600 newly-arrived convicts were under medical treatment and incapable of work and in 1792 the appalling total of 436 died.

The strain on White was severe and in December 1792 he applied for leave in England. Nevertheless he pursued his natural history studies and sent many specimens and drawings to England. When Thomas Watling, convict and artist, reached the colony in October 1792 he was assigned to White and in the next two years made many drawings for him. It is possible that White himself had some skill as an artist. When Phillip departed in December 1792 control of the colony passed to Major Francis Grose, who soon afterwards received permission to make land grants to his officers. White received 100 acres (40 ha) which he named Hamond Hill Farm, afterwards part of the suburb of Petersham. Later he was granted a further thirty acres (12 ha) adjoining. He retained these grants until 1822 when they were sold to a settler, Edward Redmond. White's application for leave was eventually granted and when he sailed in the Daedalus on 17 December 1794 he had the satisfaction of leaving the colony a far healthier place than it had been for five years. Deaths from all causes in his last year had totalled only 59.

White reached London in July 1795. He was reluctant to return to New South Wales and in August 1796, faced with the alternative of doing so immediately or of resigning his appointment, he chose to resign. He contemplated publishing a second book and sent a rough manuscript and many drawings to A. B. Lambert, a noted botanist, but the project came to nothing. The manuscript appears to have been lost and the drawings are possibly those which form the so-called Watling Collection now preserved in the British Museum (Natural History).

For three years (1796-99) White served in various ships. He was surgeon at Sheerness Navy Yard from December 1799 to September 1803 and at Chatham Yard from September 1803 until he was superannuated in January 1820 at the age of 63. He was granted a half-pay pension of £91 5s. and spent his last years at Brighton. He died at Worthing on 20 February 1832 aged 75 and was buried at St Mary's, Broadwater, where until recent years a small tablet noted this event.

White left an estate valued at £12,000. He had married about 1800 and when he died three children of this union were living: Richard Hamond, a naval lieutenant; Clara Christiana, who became the second wife of Ralph Bernal, M.P.; and Augusta Catherine Anne, who married Lieutenant (later Lieutenant-General) Henry Sandham, R.E. A fourth child, Andrew Douglass (Douglas), born to White by a convict, Rachel Turner, in Sydney on 23 September 1793 was brought up in England as a member of the household. He joined the Royal Engineers, fought at Waterloo, and in 1823 returned to Sydney to rejoin the mother from whom he had been parted as an infant and who had married Thomas Moore, a prominent settler. He lived for some years at Parramatta, married in 1835 and died in 1837.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Watson, History of Sydney Hospital (Syd, 1911)
  • G. Mackaness, Admiral Arthur Phillip (Syd, 1937)
  • H. S. Gladstone, Thomas Watling (Dumfries, 1938)
  • J. White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, ed A. H. Chisholm (Syd, 1962)
  • E. Ford, Medical Practice in Early Sydney (Syd, 1955)
  • R. and T. Rienits, Early Artists of Australia (Syd, 1963)
  • W. B. Alexander, ‘White's journal’, Emu, 23 (1923-24), 24 (1924-25)
  • J. Macpherson, ‘Surgeon-General John White’, University of Sydney Medical Journal, 21 (1928)
  • D. Anderson, ‘John White: Surgeon-General to the First Fleet’, Medical Journal of Australia, 11 Feb 1933, pp 183-87
  • G. P. Whitley, ‘Naturalists of the First Fleet’, Australian Museum Magazine, vol 6, no 9, Jan-Mar 1938, pp 291-304.

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Citation details

Rex Rienits, 'White, John (1756–1832)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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