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Henry Grattan Douglass (1790–1865)

by K. B. Noad

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Henry Grattan Douglass (1790-1865), doctor of medicine and public servant, was born in Dublin, a son of Adam Douglass, apothecary, and his wife Ann, née Edwards. His grandfather was Adam Douglass of Killenaule, County Tipperary. He saw service as an assistant surgeon with the 18th Regiment in the Peninsular war in 1809-10 and in the West Indies in 1811. Invalided home in 1812, he took a civil appointment as medical superintendent of the Fever Hospital and Infirmary at Cahir, Tipperary. In 1815 he was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and in 1819 became a licentiate of the King's and Queen's College of Physicians of Ireland. In 1817 he returned to Ireland during an epidemic of typhus and later published a pamphlet on The Best Means of Security Against the Prevailing Epidemic, and a thesis on typhus which he submitted for the doctorate of medicine of Trinity College, Dublin. In June 1820 he was elected to the Royal Irish Academy, a great honour at his age.

Douglass arrived in Sydney in May 1821 with his family and a letter of introduction from Earl Bathurst to Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who placed him in charge of the general hospital at Parramatta. He entered into colonial life with enthusiasm and soon became a member of the Agricultural Society, a vice-president of the Benevolent Society and first secretary of the Philosophical Society, the first local organization to foster Australian science. In addition to his hospital work at Parramatta, he was superintendent of the Female Factory and had a private practice. A good house was rented for him by the government until new quarters could be built, and he was appointed a magistrate.

When Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane arrived in November 1821, Douglass became a regular visitor at his residence. This association brought him into conflict with his senior colleagues on the Parramatta bench. The first clash came in August 1822 over a convict girl, Ann Rumsby, whom he had taken into his home; Dr James Hall, surgeon superintendent of the Maria Ann in which she had been transported, alleged that Douglass was behaving improperly with her. Samuel Marsden, Hannibal Macarthur and three other magistrates held a meeting, to which Douglass was summoned but failed to appear. The magistrates then had Ann arrested, and for perjury she was sentenced to imprisonment at Port Macquarie. Brisbane intervened, gave her a free pardon, threatened to remove the Parramatta magistrates who had not only refused to sit with Douglass on the bench but also called a secret general meeting of justices to support their action, and complained to London of a conspiracy against Douglass. Douglass, however, soon showed that he could fend for himself. In April 1823 he brought an action for libel against Hall, claiming damages of £5000, and was awarded £2 and costs. Next month with William Lawson he fined Marsden for allowing one of his convict servants to be at large and, when he refused to pay, had his piano seized and sold. Marsden promptly sued him for damages of £250, but the court awarded him only the amount of the fine. Marsden then complained to the bishop of London that Douglass was preventing inmates of the Female Factory from taking their infants to church for baptism, and connived with Hannibal Macarthur in a letter to Robert Peel at the Home Office, charging Douglass with drunkenness, torture of prisoners and other disreputable official conduct. These letters, forwarded to the Colonial Office, brought orders for an inquiry which exonerated Douglass but provided a loophole for Macarthur as foreman of the Grand Jury to publish further complaints against Douglass in the Sydney Gazette. Brisbane's reports extolled his virtues with increasing warmth after each attack and in February 1824 he nominated him as commissioner of the Court of Requests and sent him to London to consult the Colonial Office on the functions of the new court.

Bathurst was impressed and suggested his appointment as clerk of the Legislative Council, but soon had a change of mind when Douglass was censured for a gross breach of military discipline. Inquiry revealed that he had left England in 1821 without permission and that the War Office, after tracing him with much difficulty, had received from him no answers to their letters; recalled for service in March 1825, he sailed for Sydney again without apology or explanation, thereby forfeiting his half-pay. Other doubts assailed Bathurst when he heard rumours that Douglass had been foisted on him 'by the interests of a certain party in England vulgarly known as “the Saints” ', and that Archdeacon Thomas Scott threatened to resign if Douglass were appointed to the Legislative Council. Brisbane was obliged to agree that 'a considerable proportion of the Community' was hostile to Douglass and persuaded him to resign as a magistrate. After Brisbane's departure in 1825, Douglass fell further from grace. Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling resented his intrigues and moved him back and forth between the council and Court of Requests. After injudicious remarks at a Turf Club dinner and at a public meeting he was suspended in December 1827, Darling reporting that he was too mischievous for public office. The Colonial Office thought Darling's reasons were trivial and persuaded him to send Douglass to England for six months on half-pay.

Douglass left Sydney in May 1828. Followed by warnings that he would act in England as agent for William Charles Wentworth's party, he soon lost favour at the Colonial Office and was refused further colonial appointment. In 1829 he sued the editor of the Sydney Gazette for libel and was awarded damages of £50. Later he heard that his land grant at Narrigo on the Shoalhaven River had been cancelled. This land and his son's farm at Camden had been leased in 1828 to Wentworth for three years, and thereafter he had trouble in finding agents. In 1839 he sought compensation from the Colonial Office, but after long correspondence his claim was rejected; in spite of a strong letter from Brisbane, Governor Sir George Gipps could trace no record of Douglass's authority to occupy the grant, although he did unearth proof of a seventeen-year-old debt to the colonial government of more than £700.

In 1835 Douglass was a physician extraordinary attached to the King's household, but he soon left England for France. In Paris his knowledge of infectious disease was valuable during an epidemic of cholera, and his services won commendation and a medal from the government of Louis Philippe. In a suburb of Le Havre he founded a seamen's hospital and directed it for twelve years. He returned to Sydney in October 1848 as surgeon superintendent of the emigrant ship Earl Grey, loud in protest that the sending of his Irish female charges was 'a gross imposition on the Land and Emigration Commissioners'. Next year he became an honorary physician at Sydney Hospital and thus was one of the first teachers of clinical medicine in Australia. In 1854 he was appointed a director of the hospital, but resigned after two years to take a seat in the first Legislative Council under responsible government. His bill to regulate the qualifications of practitioners in medicine, surgery and pharmacy was laid aside in 1860. He also resumed his philanthropic activities, becoming medical officer of the Benevolent Society, and helping Charles Nicholson to revive the Philosophical Society which was soon renamed the Royal Society of New South Wales. He also helped to introduce child welfare by sharing actively in forming a Society for the Relief of Destitute Children and in establishing an orphanage at Randwick for their care. Douglass played an early part in the founding of Sydney University. Francis Merewether, an original senator and later chancellor, wrote of him: 'Shortly after his return to the colony, the foundation of an University became apparently the chief object of his thought, and he discoursed on it frequently and earnestly'. Douglass badgered Merewether and other officials; they advised him to seek the advocacy of W. C. Wentworth, who had already shown interest in the matter. Wentworth was successful, but Douglass was not appointed to the first university senate. He was elected to fill a casual vacancy in 1853 and upheld, without much success, a policy of expansion. He was a member of the medical faculty committee and remained a senator until 1865.

Douglass died in Sydney on 1 December 1865, at the age of 75, and was buried in the Anglican churchyard at Camden. In 1812 in Dublin he had married Hester, daughter of Arthur Murphy, chief of O'Murrough in County Wexford, and his wife Margaret. They had a son and two daughters. Douglass is commemorated at the University of Sydney by his coat of arms in stone on the south side of the entrance to the Great Hall, and in a stained glass window in the south porch of the main building.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-15, 20, 21, 26
  • H. E. Barff, Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1902)
  • K. M. Brown, ‘Dr Douglass and Medical Sociology’, Medical Journal of Australia, 22 May 1943, pp 455-63
  • N. J. B. Plomley, ‘Some Notes on the Life of Doctor Henry Grattan Douglass’, Medical Journal of Australia, 3 June 1961, pp 801-07
  • CO 323/134.

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Citation details

K. B. Noad, 'Douglass, Henry Grattan (1790–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


1 December, 1865 (aged ~ 75)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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