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Wright, Edward (1788–1859)

by J. B. Cleland

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

Edward Wright (1788?-1859), surgeon, claimed a medical training in the University of Edinburgh and, after graduation in 1813, much experience in public hospitals before he became apothecary, house surgeon and superintendent at Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in London in 1818. From this position he was dismissed in 1830 for frequent drunkenness, neglect of duties and undue familiarities, even though by this time he had been elected president of the Phrenological Society in London and a member of many other learned societies. He soon contrived to clear his name and then went to Syria. After four years he returned to London but failed to find a suitable practice. He became interested instead in the proposed settlement of South Australia, and in hope of an official appointment joined the managing committee of the South Australian Literary Association, and was employed to sell land and to give public lectures on behalf of the new province. His best service, however, was to help in bringing South Australia to the attention of John Morphett whom he had known first in Beirut and whose acquaintance he renewed in London. In December 1835 the colonization commissioners rejected Wright's application for the position of medical officer in the new province, but he was allowed a free passage and sailed with his wife and four sons in the Cygnet.

Wright arrived at Kangaroo Island in September 1836, and after two busy months was appointed by Colonel William Light to the Holdfast Bay station. This appointment terminated after the arrival of Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh and Wright became dependent on private practice. He bought land in Franklin Street and shared in the social life of the new settlement; his patients included many prominent settlers, among them the Thomas family with whom he was a close friend. He was also caught up in political opposition to the governor's party and played an active part in the public meeting that supported Light's choice of site for Adelaide and in establishing the Southern Australian to compete with the official newspaper.

In January 1845 Wright, seemingly in an intoxicated condition, prescribed heroic doses of morphia for the landlord of a Thebarton hotel imprisoned as a mental case at the Adelaide Jail. Tried for manslaughter in the Supreme Court, Wright claimed in defence that he had 'taken only the quantity becoming a gentleman after dinner'. He was discharged on a technical point, Judge (Sir) Charles Cooper considering him morally responsible for the man's death. Reading the evidence today it is clear that death was not due to morphia poisoning. Although the trial did not lose him all his friends it did induce him to withdraw from public life. He died at Adelaide on 7 November 1859 in his seventieth year. One son Charles, carried on his practice and the others had a farm at Dry Creek.

Although Wright did not bother to enrol in the medical register of South Australia, commenced in 1844, he appears to have been a good practitioner in the days of cupping, cauterizing and applying leeches. According to Morphett he was very clever; yet for a man of eighteen stone he was unduly reckless and over-indulgent and his continued poverty implies poor management.

Select Bibliography

  • Bethlem Hospital, Minutes of Evidence Taken by the Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Charges Against Dr Wright … and His Answer (Lond, 1830)
  • Bethlem Hospital, Various Letters Addressed to Dr Wright, Containing Testimonials (Lond, 1831)
  • J. B. Cleland, Pioneer Medical Men in South Australia (Adel, 1941)
  • E. K. Thomas (ed), The Diary and Letters of Mary Thomas (Adel, 1915)
  • CO 13/3 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

J. B. Cleland, 'Wright, Edward (1788–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-edward-2818/text4037, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 November 2014.

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

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