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Thomas Jamison (c. 1753–1811)

by Vivienne Parsons

This article was published:

Thomas Jamison (c.1753-1811), surgeon, was baptized on 10 January 1753 at the Presbyterian Church, Ballywalter by Newtownards, County Down, Ireland, son of William Jamison and his wife Mary, née Fisher. In 1786 he was appointed surgeon's mate of the Sirius, arriving in New South Wales in the First Fleet in January 1788. From March 1788, when Norfolk Island was settled, Jamison acted there. His appointment by Governor Arthur Phillip as assistant surgeon to the colony, after the wreck of the Sirius, was later confirmed in London; however, there was confusion over the date of his commission, and for some time he received only a superintendent's pay because of his being confused with John Jamieson.

He remained at Norfolk Island until James Mileham relieved him in October 1799, and then did duty at Sydney until September 1800 when he was granted twelve months leave. In 1801 Lord Hobart informed Governor Philip Gidley King that Jamison was to succeed William Balmain as surgeon-general of New South Wales without reference to the date of his commission. Jamison left England in the Atlas, but because of a quarrel with the master, Richard Brooks, arising out of the overcrowding of the ship with goods brought out for private trade, Jamison left the ship at Rio de Janeiro and took a passage in the Hercules. In June 1802 he arrived at Sydney, where he was immediately appointed acting surgeon-general during Balmain's absence. He proceeded to bring a civil action against Brooks on ten charges, but the court only recognized eight of them, rejecting a charge of assault on the grounds that the aggression had been committed outside the limits of its authority. Jamison's claim of £300 for damages to his property in the Atlas was rejected by Governor King on appeal, since action for damages could only be made against the owners of the ship; but he was later refunded the cost of his passage from Rio.

In 1804 Jamison, with Surgeons John Harris and John Savage, carried out the first successful vaccination of children against smallpox, though Savage later claimed that this was due to his initiative. On 14 October Jamison published in the Sydney Gazette the first medical paper to be printed in Australia, 'General Observations on the Smallpox', followed by an offer of vaccination to prevent this 'loathsome, disgusting and too often fatal disease'; but he received many setbacks in his official position, finding a shortage of medicines and equipment and above all a lack of skilled assistants. In 1805 he court-martialled two assistant surgeons, Mileham and Savage, for neglect of duty in refusing to attend women in child-birth, but the War Office ruled that these charges did not come under the Articles of War. These incidents emphasized the problem of medical attendance on the growing civilian population in the colony, and led to the granting of permission to the surgeons to engage in private practice. Jamison's reiterated complaints of the lack of medical supplies were of little avail, and his discontent came to a head under Governor William Bligh. In 1806 he sought leave to return to England to bring out his family, but Bligh refused permission until other assistant surgeons could be found. Bligh accused Jamison, along with John Macarthur and D'Arcy Wentworth of becoming discontented when their trade in spirits was checked. Jamison supported Wentworth when the latter was court-martialled by Bligh, gave evidence for Macarthur when he sued Robert Campbell junior for trespass after that officer had removed the heads and worms of Macarthur's stills and had accompanied Major George Johnston when that officer had complained to Bligh about improper gubernatorial interference with the affairs of the New South Wales Corps. This, Johnston said later, was the cause of Bligh dismissing Jamison from the magistracy to which he had been appointed in 1802; but the governor complained to the Colonial Office that Jamison was 'not an upright Man, and inimical to Government, as likewise connected in improper transactions'; he allowed him to continue as principal surgeon only because there was no one to take his place. It was not surprising, therefore, that Jamison was among those who deposed Bligh in January 1808. He was appointed a magistrate and Naval Officer by the rebel government, took part in the committees which examined Bligh's supporters and read his personal papers, and was one of those whom the governor forbade to leave the colony when he proclaimed it as being in a state of rebellion. However, Jamison sailed in the Admiral Gambier in June 1809 to be a witness for Johnston in the inquiries which were soon to be held in England.

Jamison was deeply embroiled in trade. He was active in bringing wheat and pork from Norfolk Island settlers who, before the evacuation of the island, owed about £15,000 to Jamison and other Sydney merchants. In partnership with Garnham Blaxcell and Macarthur, he invested heavily in the sandalwood trade and quarrelled bitterly with Blaxcell over the sale of the Favourite of which he was part owner. The dispute over Jamison's share in this trade was carried on by his son and Macarthur long after his death. Jamison saw no harm in following the example of his colleagues in indulging in mercantile activities in his spare time, which led him first to disregard some government regulations and ultimately to conflict with authority; for all that he was more competent and conscientious than most of his contemporaries among the officials. He was granted 1000 acres (405 ha) on the Nepean in 1805, where Regentville was later built; he also acquired farms at George's River and South Creek, and held 2300 acres (931 ha) in 1807. After returning to England he signed over his property in New South Wales to his son Sir John Jamison, who came to the colony in 1814 to take it up.

Thomas Jamison died in London on 27 January 1811, leaving a widow, Rebecca, who was granted a pension of £30. Their son and two daughters survived him. Jamison was also survived by Elizabeth Colley and their five daughters. He made provision for his son by Sarah Place.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-7
  • E. Ford, ‘Thomas Jamison and the Beginning of Medical Journalism in Australia’, Medical Journal of Australia, 16 Oct 1954, pp 624-26
  • J. MacPherson, ‘Thomas Jamison’, University of Sydney Medical Journal, 27 (1933)
  • manuscript catalogue under Thomas Jamison (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'Jamison, Thomas (c. 1753–1811)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Jamison, n.d.

Thomas Jamison, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 110113995

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jamieson, Thomas

c. 1753


27 January, 1811 (aged ~ 58)
London, Middlesex, England

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