The Rachel Forster Hospital

by John York

John York is a Consultant Emeritus to the Department of Rheumatology at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and a retired Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

When the Arthritis Clinic moved to the Rachel Forster Hospital in 1972 he began a 28 year association with this historically unique institution with its initial charter of service to women and children by woman doctors.

The story of the evolving role of the hospital within the frame work of an ever changing medical and social environment is fascinating and is a tribute to the vision of the founding women doctors and their successors as gender barriers were overcome.

A tradition of excellence and “Service Above self” is the legacy for those who follow to emulate.

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Author's Preface

“There is a time for everything...
...a time to tear down and a time to build”

(ECCLESIASTES 3:1-3)

The existence of the of the New Hospital for Women and Children later the Rachel Forster Hospital spanned 78 eventful years and was preceded and followed by significant milestones in health care in New south Wales.

The seeds of the concept were sown at The Sydney Medical Mission established in 1900 in Riley St Surry hills where women doctors were given the opportunity to practice medicine despite the prevailing opposition from a male dominated academic and clinical medical profession. The outbreak of World War 1 resulted in its closure and the founding doctors of the New Hospital sought other opportunities to expand their horizons.

The second milestone was the establishment of the Institute of Rheumatology and Orthopaedics in the QE 11 Building at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where expertise in the medical and surgical management of rheumatic diseases was continued but sadly without the title of its historic patron or the recognition of all past staff members and supporters of the Rachel Forster Hospital over its eight decades.

For me the photo of the crowd at the “Carols by Candlelight” in Hyde Park is a timely reminder of the esteem in which the community held “Rachel Forster“ hospital.

Many people have contributed invaluable assistance in the production of this book, and I’m deeply indebted to the curator of the RPAH Museum Kathryn Hillier who encouraged me to write, to Vanessa Witton for her practical help, historical perspective and for hunting down photo sources from the Mitchell Library, to Audio Visual Services at RPAH for their technical expertise, to past and present staff members of the Department of Rheumatology, particularly John Hassall. James Phillips and Alice Fuller, from Weir Phillips Heritage, the authors of the Heritage Impact Study on Rachel Forster Hospital have been enthusiastic and generous and have permitted me to use some of their irreplaceable photographic records of the hospital.

Finally my thanks to my publisher Phillip Mathews, and to my long suffering wife Helen who foolishly thought that long lonely evenings with me sequested in my study were over when I retired!

Book Review by Dr Vanessa Witton

In 2016, the recently demolished Rachel Forster Hospital in Pitt Street Redfern lies in a desolate mass of rubble, the latest victim of the rampant property development that continues to obsess Sydney. Despite years-long protests from Sydneysiders, this site of considerable historical significance will soon be filled with high-density residential apartments, its proud history physically annihilated. Consequently, the release of this dainty book by John York is timely.

York is Consultant Emeritus to the Department of Rheumatology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and a retired Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney. In 1972 he began a 28-year association with the Rachel Forster Hospital when the Arthritis Clinic moved there from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and from 1974 he headed the combined RFH/RPAH Arthritis Unit. He documents the history of the hospital up to his retirement in 2000, when it was quietly and unceremoniously ‘closed’ by the New South Wales State government. York saw this as a profound stimulus to honour in writing the immense contribution to the health and wellbeing of Sydney residents that the Rachel Forster Hospital had made over 78 years.

Several short histories of the Rachel Forster Hospital have been penned since its establishment in 1922 as a Surry Hills outpatient dispensary run by women for women. In this book York also acknowledges the significant role the unique institution and its pioneer women doctors played in ministering initially to the health of the poorest women and children, and later to the men and women of Sydney. However he covers new ground by revealing the medical aspects of the development of rheumatology at the hospital, and this is where his volume sparkles. He provides thoughtful insights into the unit’s origins and mergers, and shines a light on its highly skilled and committed staff. York writes protectively about the small hospital’s struggle to survive during the later turbulent years of rationalisation of medical services and budgets within the New South Wales Department of Health in the 1970s and 80s.

The author effortlessly imparts the strong sense of community that was nurtured from the time of the hospital’s inception, and as we turn the pages we can slowly feel this slipping away as parts of the institution are disbanded and incorporated into another hospital over time. York’s writing is eloquent and frequently personal, and his recollections are fascinating for this reason. His memory of a traumatic fire in 1985 when a neighbouring warehouse went up in flames is retold from the perspective of Rachel Forster surgical patients, whose anaesthetic was induced in the theatres of Rachel Forster but who woke up in a completely different hospital!

Glossy colour, black and white, and sepia photographs of staff and buildings strongly support the six chapters, including several irreplaceable images. One of these is a section of the 1940s sea mural by Australian hospital artist and author Pixie O’Harris, whose burnt orange goldfish and tentacled seaweed once brightened the walls of the original Children’s Ward. Mercifully, in 2007 a photographer captured a precious peeling fragment during the hospital’s Heritage Impact Study, and York’s publication ensures a valuable permanent record of a portion of this mural, now forever lost. Another important inclusion is the painted portrait of breast cancer pioneer Dr Kathleen Cuningham by portraitist Reginald Jerrold-Nathan, which once hung in the Rachel Forster Hospital boardroom. The author recently rediscovered it in the archives of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Museum, and reproduces it here in colour in all its regal glory. This 64-page labour of love, which includes a generous pictorial accompaniment, is inspiring and warmly recommended.

John York. The Rachel Forster Hospital: 1922-2000, (Willoughby, NSW: Phillip Mathews Book Publishers, 2015). ISBN 9780646934723 (HB). 64pp, colour and b+w photographs.

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The Rachel Forster Hospital Crest

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Lady Rachel Forster

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Dr William Redfern

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Rachel Forster Hospital
150 Pitt St, Redfern

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Dr Selwyn Nelson

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Dr John Hassall

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Dr Harry Tyer

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Royal Prince Alfred Hosptial Crest

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