Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles McCarthy (1814–1896)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

Charles McCarthy (1814-1896), medical practitioner, was born in Blarney, County Cork, Ireland, son of Denis McCarthy, farmer, and his wife Ann. McCarthy qualified in Glasgow (L.F.P.S., 1846), married Rose Ann Patterson in 1849, migrated to Victoria in 1853 and was in general practice in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, for twenty years. He was admitted to the University of Melbourne (M.B., M.D., ad eund., 1862). In 1863-69 he was medical officer to the St Patrick's Society until dismissed for interference in its management. He was a member of the Medical Society of Victoria in 1862-70 and of the short-lived Victorian Medical Association in 1869-71.

From mid-1859 the Argus published correspondence from 'Medicus' who urged that treatment of alcoholism was a medical rather than a moral problem, and should be a government responsibility. Under pressure McCarthy admitted authorship in January 1866. He was concerned with the link between chronic alcoholism and insanity but opposed the incarceration of common drunkards with either lunatics or criminals. To assist dipsomaniacs to help themselves, he recommended controlled diet and exercise in the isolation of a special Inebriates' Retreat for periods of from one to three years. He did not believe in miracle cures.

McCarthy was described by Dr R. Youl as well-meaning but lacking 'the faculty of inducing people to like him'. However, he had the crusader's gift of persistence and could attract respect and influential support. In October 1866 James McCulloch's government resisted a request for funds for a retreat and legislation which would enable drunkards to be detained therein. But Attorney-General George Higinbotham put an appropriate clause into the Lunacy Act of 1867 and, though it proved useless, McCarthy in June 1868 had himself appointed a justice of the peace, which later facilitated the legal process of committal.

In September 1871 a new government promised limited financial support. In December 1872 a property of some 32 acres (13 ha) in Northcote was acquired and the inebriates treatment bill drafted by Dr Hearn became law. This bound an alcoholic to accept treatment for periods ranging from three to twelve months once the court gave an order for his restraint. McCarthy always claimed that this was the first Act of its kind in the world, though he was aware of experiments in the United States where a similar Act was operating in New York by about 1864.

McCarthy moved into residence as secretary and medical superintendent of the retreat which opened in October 1873. Public support was never strong; government money stopped after 1874 and McCarthy's salary was unpaid after the first year. He could only afford to take in paying patients. This frustrated the intention of the Act because compulsory orders for treatment could not be enforced on those who could not pay. Expense also inhibited long stay by patients and prevented McCarthy from producing convincing curative results. By 1877 the retreat trustees were embarrassed by failure and debt. They hastily and illegally agreed to McCarthy's offer to buy the property and continue to run it as a private venture. Scandal erupted in 1884 as a result of inquiries pursued by E. L. Zox, who was chairman of the royal commission on asylums for the insane and inebriate, and an original supporter of the retreat as a charitable institution. McCarthy's behaviour was indiscreet but the commissioners' failure to acknowledge his pioneering efforts cannot be excused since they endorsed most of the principles advocated by him for decades.

In September 1885 McCarthy was ordered by Judge Molesworth to restore the retreat to a charitable trust, but he was not debarred from participation in the trust's affairs. No firm action was taken until December 1888 when the Inebriate Asylums Act repealed the 1872 measure, abolished private asylums with statutory powers, but accepted that the government did have a responsibility for inebriates. By a second Act in November 1889 the government took over the Northcote Retreat and its debt of £8500. McCarthy was employed to run it until a new superintendent was appointed in 1892. With the help of depression, the retreat quickly collapsed. McCarthy and his wife settled in Hawthorn where she died in 1894, and he on 29 February 1896; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • C. R. D. Brothers, Early Victorian Psychiatry 1835-1905 (Melb, 1962)
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, 20 Mar 1896
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Jan, 26 Oct 1866
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Apr 1872, 10 Jan 1874, 22, 28 Dec 1881, 9 Sept 1885
  • A. M. Mitchell, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Later Nineteenth Century Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'McCarthy, Charles (1814–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Blarney, Cork, Ireland


29 February, 1896 (aged ~ 82)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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