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Sir Arthur Renwick (1837–1908)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Arthur Renwick (1837-1908), by unknown photographer

Arthur Renwick (1837-1908), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11697

Sir Arthur Renwick (1837-1908), physician, philanthropist and politician, was born on 30 May 1837 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of George Renwick, bricklayer, and his wife Christina, née Condie. On 21 July 1841 he reached Sydney with his parents, bounty immigrants, in the Helen. Educated at the Redfern Grammar School, in 1853 he matriculated at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1857). He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (M.B., 1860; M.D., 1861) and became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. After further research courses in Glasgow, London and Paris, in 1862 he returned to Sydney and lived at Redfern. On 26 March 1868 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Rev. John Saunders, at the Redfern Congregational Church in the presence of George Allen and John Fairfax.

Renwick soon established a growing practice and was skilled in forensic surgery. In 1862-77 he was visiting medical officer for the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, in 1866-75 an honorary physician at the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, medical officer for the Australian Union Benefit Society and examiner in medicine of the University of Sydney. He twice sought nomination to the Medical Board and in July 1873 told Henry Parkes 'I do not know any other medical gentleman who has superior claims'. Appointed to it on 20 August he later became president.

In the 1870s Renwick became a director and honorary consulting physician at the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary and honorary surgeon to the New South Wales Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind, and president in the 1880s. In 1878 he succeeded Deas Thomson as president of both the Infirmary and the Benevolent Society. In the 1880s he was the first president of the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association. In the 1890s he was also a director of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, a trustee of the Carrington Centennial Hospital for Convalescents and an honorary physician to the Hospital for Sick Children and the Thirlmere Home for Consumptives.

Elected to the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1877, Renwick was defeated by Edmund Barton for the university seat in the Legislative Assembly in August 1879; but in December, with the support of the Orange and temperance movements, he won East Sydney at a by-election and held it till 1882. An able debater, in 1881-83 he was secretary for mines in the Parkes-Robertson ministry and carried the Ad eundem Degrees Act, an act establishing an anatomy school in the university and the Sydney Hospital Incorporation Act. In an abusive and vain campaign against Henry Copeland in East Sydney in 1883, Renwick disclosed that he had strongly opposed Robertson's land bill in cabinet but had had to yield to his colleagues. His relationship with Parkes deteriorated further in June 1883 when he threatened to sue Parkes for the recovery of £500. In 1885-87 he represented Redfern and was minister of public instruction under Sir Patrick Jennings in 1886-87. On 30 December he was appointed to the Legislative Council. A contemporary described him as 'a very ambitious little gentleman' with 'an enlarged idea of his own political worth'. In November 1889 he refused Parkes's offer of the vice-presidency of the Executive Council.

Renwick was absorbed by his charitable works. An able and efficient administrator, he set the pace in improving conditions at the Benevolent Asylum, especially in standards of care for women and children, and worked for a separate lying-in hospital. In 1881-1901 Renwick was president of the State Children's Relief Department; he established the boarding-out system for orphans and greatly extended the department's legal powers of guardianship of state children. He supervised the planning and erection of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind Institution's building, Darlington, the main front blocks of Sydney Hospital, the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, and State Children's Relief Department's farm homes at Mittagong. In 1896 Renwick drew up the manifesto of the Old-Age Pensions League and became its president. In evidence to a Legislative Assembly select committee he hoped old-age pensions would relieve overcrowding in the Benevolent Asylum.

Renwick remained on the Senate of the University of Sydney until 1908 and was vice-chancellor in 1889-91, 1900-02 and 1906-08 and several times acting dean of the faculty of medicine. In 1877 he had given £1000 for a scholarship in natural science 'with especial reference to Comparative Anatomy' and told the chancellor of his great 'gratification in being permitted to be the first graduate of the University to give sensible expression to the gratitude I feel for the invaluable benefit conferred on me when a humble student'. He also donated the west window of the hall in the Medical School building.

Renwick was a New South Wales commissioner for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, a vice-president of the commission for the Amsterdam Exhibition in 1883, vice-president and later president of the commission for the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition in 1887 and a New South Wales representative commissioner at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, in 1893. In 1897 he failed to be elected to the Australasian Federal Convention.

Associated with various commercial enterprises Renwick was a director and chairman of the Australian Widows' Fund, Mutual Life Assurance Society and the Industrial Building Society. He reputedly amassed a large fortune only to suffer severe losses from mining ventures. Knighted in 1894, he died at his home at Burwood on 23 November 1908 of heart disease and was buried in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, five sons and a daughter to whom he left an estate sworn for probate at £7711.

Lady Renwick was an energetic charity worker and helped her husband in the State Children's Relief Department. She was president of the Young Women's Christian Association and the New South Wales Bush Missionary Society and connected with the National Council of Women of New South Wales, the Sydney Ladies' Sanitary Association, the Australian Trained Nurses Association and the Women's Suffrage League of New South Wales. She died on 17 March 1918.

A bust of Sir Arthur Renwick by Simonetti is owned by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858, 2, 435, 1873-74, 6, passim, 1881, 3, 1001, 4, 1033, 1875-76, 6, 916, 1896, 5, 20
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, 21 Dec 1908
  • Bulletin, 3 July 1880
  • Town and Country Journal, 22 Oct 1881, 25 Nov 1908
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 2 Dec 1882
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20, 24 Jan 1883, 24 Nov 1908
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Feb 1894, supp 10
  • B. Dickey, Charity in New South Wales, 1850-1914 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • University of Sydney Archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Renwick, Sir Arthur (1837–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Renwick (1837-1908), by unknown photographer

Arthur Renwick (1837-1908), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11697

Life Summary [details]


30 May, 1837
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


23 November, 1908 (aged 71)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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