Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Russ Pugh (1805–1897)

by C. J. Craig

This article was published:

William Russ Pugh (1805-1897), by unknown photographer

William Russ Pugh (1805-1897), by unknown photographer

W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001126073667

William Russ Pugh (1805?-1897), medical practitioner, son of William Bowdler Pugh, arrived in Hobart Town in the Derwent in December 1835, and reputedly walked soon after to Launceston, where the following May he married a fellow passenger Cornelia Ann, the daughter of G. A. Kirton, a London solicitor. He settled in Launceston and in July 1841 was appointed sub-agent for immigration and health officer for the port of Launceston. In this capacity he came into conflict with Henry Dowling's commercial hiring agency. When this position was discontinued in 1844 he took up private practice, and in June 1844 was nominated to the court of medical examiners. As a practitioner in Launceston he was courageous, aggressive and keenly interested in experiment. His great pride provoked hostility amongst Launceston doctors with whom he was reluctant to act in consultation. Once, when his ability was doubted, he retaliated by prosecuting a fellow practitioner who was unable to pay the fine for malicious persecution and was gaoled for twelve months.

With his partner, Dr James Grant, Pugh was continually engaged in experiments, and was quick to object to proposed legislation forbidding without exception the ownership of stills, essential to his medical and pharmaceutical research. Many of the drugs prescribed by Grant and Pugh were prepared from plants they had grown for the purpose. As early as 1842 he had installed lighting from coal gas in his house. An active member of the Tasmanian Society, predecessor of the Royal Society, he was a frequent visitor when the Franklins were at Government House, Hobart, and a friend of celebrated scientific men of his day. In 1846 he excited considerable colonial interest with an analysis of Tasmanian wheats for the Horticultural Society, confirming his friend Count Strzelecki's theory that the gluten content in colonial wheat had deteriorated through overcropping.

Reports of his ability as a surgeon appeared in the local press, and on 9 June 1847 notices of his successful attempts with ether, the first by a medical practitioner in Australia, using an apparatus copied from the Illustrated London News, 9 January 1847. In one operation he removed a tumour from a girl's lower jaw, and in another he removed cataracts from a man's eyes. The anaesthesia was successful, but in the Launceston Examiner Pugh discussed the difficulties associated with its use. Later that year he received an apparatus for administering ether from Bishop Russell Nixon who was then in England.

Soon afterwards financial difficulties forced the closing of St John's Hospital, Launceston, with the administration of which Pugh had for many years been associated. He left the colony, taking with him testimonials of his unimpeachable character as a gentleman and skill as a surgeon from the mayor and aldermen of Launceston, and leading colonists. He had been in the Commission of the Peace since July 1843. He went first to Melbourne and later to Brighton, England, where his wife died in 1874. On 27 April 1876 at Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, he married Sarah Ann Webb. He died in London on 27 December 1897. The only child of his first marriage had died in infancy.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Button, Flotsam and Jetsam (Launceston, 1909)
  • L. S. Bethell, The Story of Port Dalrymple (Hob, 1957)
  • W. Crowther, ‘Introduction of Surgical Anaesthesia in Van Diemen's Land’, Medical Journal of Australia, 8 Nov 1947, pp 561-70
  • correspondence file under Pugh (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

C. J. Craig, 'Pugh, William Russ (1805–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 28 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

William Russ Pugh (1805-1897), by unknown photographer

William Russ Pugh (1805-1897), by unknown photographer

W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001126073667

Life Summary [details]




27 December, 1897 (aged ~ 92)
London, Middlesex, England