Redfern, William

Redfern, William (1774–1833)

extract from Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967 by Edward Ford

William Redfern (1774?-1833), surgeon, was probably born in Canada, and brought up at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England. In June 1797 after passing the examination of the London Company of Surgeons, the predecessor of the Royal College of Surgeons, he was commissioned surgeon's mate in the navy. He joined H.M.S. Standard, whose crew a few months later took part in the mutiny of the fleet at the Nore, which followed the success of the mutiny of the Channel Fleet at Spithead. In the course of the trouble Redfern advised the men 'to be more united among themselves', so he was included among the leaders to be tried by court martial. On 27 August a court sentenced him to death, but because of his youth he was reprieved. He was kept in prison for four years until sent to New South Wales in the Minorca, on whose indent his name is bracketed with thirteen others as 'Mutineers'. On board he helped the surgeon and reached Sydney on 14 December 1801.

In 1808, Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux Foveaux, appointed him assistant surgeon, owing to 'the distress'd State of the Colony for medical aid' since 'his skill and ability in his profession are unquestionable, and his conduct has been such as to deserve particular approbation'. As he had no documentary evidence of his professional qualifications Surgeons Thomas Jamison, John Harris and William Bohan examined him in 'Medicine, Surgery and other necessary collateral Branches of Medical Literature'. They found him 'qualified to exercise the Profession of a Surgeon etc.'; the examination set a precedent followed for many years for testing anyone who wished to practise medicine in the colony. During 1809 Redfern attended John Macarthur's daughter and earned her father's deep gratitude for 'the skill he … manifested in discovering and applying an efficacious remedy to her extraordinary disease'. Macarthur promised to use his influence in Redfern's favour 'whenever Mr. Bligh's affair is settled', but by that time Governor Lachlan Macquarie had recommended the confirmation of Redfern's appointment, and to this the secretary of state agreed.

Redfern conducted a daily out-patient clinic for men from the convict gangs. He also had the most extensive private practice in the colony, for he was the most popular doctor in the settlement and his services were widely sought. He was the family doctor to the Macarthurs and the Macquaries and attended the birth of Governor Macquarie's son. His professional skill was highly regarded by his colleagues and he had the reputation of being the best obstetrician in the colony.

Since Redfern was concerned with convict health it was natural that he should have been asked to investigate the heavy mortality suffered on the calamitous voyages of the convict transports Surry, General Hewitt and Three Bees in 1814. His report is one of the major Australian contributions to public health. His recommendations on the ventilation, cleanliness and fumigation of the ships, on the diet and clothing of the prisoners and the need for permitting them on deck were all important, but even more noteworthy was his insistence on the need for 'approved and skilful' surgeons in each ship and for defining clearly their powers vis-à-vis the ships' masters. To provide men for this service he recommended naval surgeons, 'Men of Abilities, who have been Accustomed to Sea practice, who know what is due to themselves as Men, and as Officers with full power to exercise their Judgment, without being liable to the Controul of the Masters of the Transports'. This advice was followed, and the appointment of surgeon-superintendents of convict, and later emigrant, ships put an end to most of the abuses of the past.

Redfern always took an active part in the life of New South Wales. He was an honorary medical officer of the Benevolent Society, a member of its committee and that of the Aborigines' Institution. He was one of the first directors of the Bank of New South Wales. He and his wife had an estate of 100 acres (40 ha) which gave the name of Redfern to the Sydney suburb which later developed about it. In 1818 he was granted 1300 acres (526 ha) in the Airds district. This he called Campbell Fields in honour of Mrs Macquarie, and it was praised by Bigge as one of the best developed properties in the colony.

He was one of the greatest of the early medical practitioners of the colony, the first to receive an Australian qualification, the first teacher of Australian medical students, and the author of important reforms in the convict transports. Nevertheless, as a result of his youthful actions at the Nore, which, however justified, were naturally resented by the government, his later important services in New South Wales were ill requited.