Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Rawdon Campbell (1798–1877)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

Francis Campbell, n.d.

Francis Campbell, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Francis Rawdon Hastings Campbell (1798-1877), medical practitioner, was born in Belfast, Ireland, the second son of Archibald Campbell and Elizabeth Young. At 11 he ran away to join a transport carrying troops to the Peninsular war. On returning home he continued his education, studied at Glasgow University (M.A., M.D., 1829) and at Edinburgh (L.R.C.S., 1829). He practised medicine in London until he migrated to Sydney where he arrived on 2 September 1839. Approved as a medical practitioner he opened rooms in Bridge Street before moving to Morpeth where he took up land and in March 1842 began a practice in East Maitland. Three years later he returned to Sydney and was appointed to the honorary medical staff of the Benevolent Asylum and physician to the Oddfellows' Medical Institute. From 1 January 1848 he was medical superintendent of the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum.

The asylum had been established in 1838 with Joseph Thomas Digby as superintendent. Digby had experience in asylums in Britain but was not a qualified medical practitioner. He believed that physical restraint was the only treatment to which lunatics would respond and under his supervision their care was both primitive and harsh. In letters to the Sydney Morning Herald in May and June 1846 Campbell criticized Digby's administration and recommended certain reforms. He believed that the asylum should be controlled by a medical officer answerable only to the principal medical adviser to the government. He argued that methods of treatment were primitive, classification of patients inadequate, cells too small, accommodation generally unsuitable and that the number of patients should be limited to one hundred. As medical superintendent, Campbell found these problems hard to solve and for many years his demands for reform were unsuccessful. In 1850 Digby, who had been demoted to steward, was dismissed for his refusal to recognize Campbell's authority. Other stewards were later appointed but each proved generally unsuitable, so much of the detailed organization of the asylum fell to Campbell.

Within a year of appointment Campbell forbade the use of physical restraint as a method of treatment and no problems were created. This policy continued whilst he remained in charge and although he was often criticized for it and alleged cruelties, his accusers could find little supporting evidence in his management. Several public inquiries were held but in each he was able to refute charges of maladministration. He gave evidence in a forthright manner and made no attempt to spare the feelings of his critics, were they influential citizens or humble attendants.

Fearless in his attacks on colonial maladministration as it affected the asylum, he did not hesitate when his plans were opposed by either the colonial secretary or architect to appeal to the governor in colourful memorandums often charged with scorn and intemperate in tone. He often replied to public criticism in the press and more than once was reprimanded by the governor for his outbursts. To his staff he was a strict taskmaster demanding absolute obedience and unswerving loyalty. Competent authorities stated that his clinical notes on patients were detailed and sound in diagnosis, though professional colleagues foolish enough to express contrary opinions were dismissed as uninformed and incompetent.

In evidence before a select committee on lunatic asylums in 1863 Campbell explained that he believed lunacy to be the result of moral causes or physical injury to the brain, and that a probable contributory cause was the excessive use of tobacco and alcohol. Treatment could be carried out best by early diagnosis and admission to the asylum. To keep patients active he insisted on the provision of recreation facilities. In no circumstances would he agree that persons from outside the asylum be admitted to arrange concerts or dances for the patients since this would expose them to the unsympathetic and curious. His condemnation of physical restraint was not accepted by all his contemporaries, and in some of his forms of therapy he was ahead of his time. He also advocated small asylums in country districts rather than one large asylum in the metropolitan area; should the government insist on building a large asylum in Sydney, he recommended that the University of Sydney, 'that premature birth of vanity', be resumed for the purpose.

In 1867 the government sent Dr Frederic Norton Manning overseas to examine and report on the administration of asylums and patient care. Before Manning reported Campbell resigned. His reasons are not recorded but must surely have included his age: in his seventieth year he was tiring after nineteen years as medical superintendent.

After his retirement, Campbell lived at Hunter's Hill where he took an active interest in local affairs. For many years he had been prominent in local government and was chairman of the Hunter's Hill Council in 1865. He died on 19 October 1877 aged 79 and was buried in St Anne's cemetery, Ryde, survived by his wife Selina, née Porter, whom he had married in London about 1829, and ten children.

Select Bibliography

  • D. I. McDonald, ‘Dr Francis Campbell and the Tarban Creek Asylum, 1848-1867’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 53, part 3, Sept 1967, pp 222-57.

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Campbell, Francis Rawdon (1798–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Francis Campbell, n.d.

Francis Campbell, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Goodfellow, Robin
  • Vox e Deserto

Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


19 October, 1877 (aged ~ 79)
New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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