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Tharp Mountain Girdlestone (1823–1899)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published:

Tharp Mountain Girdlestone (c.1823-1899), surgeon, politician and sanitary reformer, was born in Norfolk, England, youngest of six children of Rev. Theophilus Girdlestone and his wife Mary, née Gay. Tharp undertook medical training at Norwich, and at St Bartholomew's and York-road Lying-in hospitals, London, later becoming a house surgeon at St Bartholomew's. A member of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1845, he was made a fellow in 1849. He was an active boxer and rower.

On 1 March 1850 Girdlestone reached Victoria in the Lord Stanley. At Christ's Church, Geelong, on 18 February 1853 he married Irish-born Mary Green with Anglican rites. Registered with the Medical Board of Victoria in 1854, he moved about the gold-rush districts for three years. He was resident surgeon at Castlemaine and coroner at Alma, Maryborough and Ararat, where he bought property in 1858 and became founding chairman of the improvement association. Girdlestone displayed 'energy and determination' and did not shirk public argument. A trustee and committee-member of the local hospital from 1859, he was appointed honorary surgeon in 1860 but resigned next year. Elected chairman of the town council in November 1861, he stood down in April 1862 upon election to the Legislative Assembly for Ararat. An 'abrupt' but 'earnest' speaker, and a supporter of liberal views, he advocated reform of the Upper House. He was defeated at elections in January 1866.

Although Girdlestone again contested Ararat in 1875, he remained in Melbourne, where he had maintained a Collins Street practice since 1862, gaining a reputation as 'probably the best surgeon in Melbourne'. 'Slow and safe', he pioneered the use of kangaroo tendon as suture material, investigated cures for snake bite, published medical papers and embraced the new, antiseptic surgery. A member of the Melbourne Hospital committee in 1866-70 and 1879-82 and a founding member of the Alfred Hospital executive committee in 1868, he was a dedicated hospital practitioner. He served as an honorary surgeon and as chairman of the medical staff at the Alfred from 1871, but resigned in 1876, believing that management was ignoring the opinions of medical staff.

Girdlestone was president (1867) and treasurer (1878-83) of the Medical Society of Victoria. In 1873 he was provisionally appointed lecturer in surgery at the University of Melbourne, deposing Edward Barker, who appealed and was restored to his post. Girdlestone eventually replaced Barker in December 1880. His membership of the Melbourne Hospital committee did not prevent his campaigning against the hospital during 1868-69, on account of its offensive drainage. He was acting in his capacity as part-time medical officer to the City of Melbourne, an appointment he held in 1868-85 and discharged with 'skill, earnestness and energy'. In November 1876 he had become assistant honorary surgeon at the Melbourne Hospital, and was a surgeon there in 1883-87, but lost the post when defeated at the election by subscribers. He spoke out against the practice of trenching nightsoil in public parks and argued persistently that the Yan Yean reservoir, the principal water supply system for Melbourne, was polluted at its source. A member of the 1888 royal commission into the sanitary condition of Melbourne, in 1892 he gave evidence on the unsatisfactory condition of the Melbourne Hospital to the royal commission on charitable institutions.

Girdlestone suffered heavy losses in the 1890s depression. In failing health, he returned to England in 1895 and died at his brother's house at Sunningdale, Berkshire, on 6 July 1899. His wife, who had remained in Victoria, survived him. Their only child, a son, had died in China in 1873. Described as 'a little man with a massive head', Girdlestone had a forthright character that compelled one obituarist to point out that 'he was a much pleasanter man than was generally supposed'.

Select Bibliography

  • K. F. Russell, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and its Early Surgeons, 1841-1900 (Melb, 1948)
  • K. S. Inglis, Hospital and Community (Melb, 1958)
  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • K. F. Russell, The Melbourne Medical School 1862-1962 (Melb, 1977)
  • D. Dunstan, Governing the Metropolis (Melb, 1984)
  • H. Love, James Edward Neild (Melb, 1989)
  • Intercolonial Medical Journal, 20 Aug 1899, p 426
  • Royal Melbourne Hospital archives.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Girdlestone, Tharp Mountain (1823–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Norfolk, England


6 July, 1899 (aged ~ 76)
Sunningdale, Berkshire, England

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