17 December 2011

William Bland - convict, surgeon, politician, inventor

“Lost and Found” is a television programme that focuses on the contents of The State Library of NSW, one of Australia’s loveliest heritage buildings. Inside lurk plenty of amazing, yet little known stories that shine a light on Australian history in the earliest decades. One character I had never heard discussed, except at the University of Sydney Medical Museum, was Dr William Bland.

William Bland (1789–1868) was born in London, the son of D Robert Bland. He trained in medicine and was qualified by the Royal College of Surgeons as surgeon's mate in the navy in 1809. He was promoted to the rank of naval surgeon in 1812. While serving on a navy ship in Bombay, this middle class naval officer was involved in a brawl with the purser. As a result, Bland fought a duel with the purser and killed him. Bland was tried for murder in Bombay in 1813 and found guilty. It is not clear why he was recommended for mercy, but luckily he was only sentenced to transportation for seven years. He was not hanged.

Dr Bland, c1845, oldest daguerreotype known in The State Library of NSW

Bland was shipped to Australia, reaching Hobart Town in January 1814 and then Sydney in July 1814 where he was a prisoner of His Majesty’s at Castle Hill gaol. Once again the gods shone on William Bland - he was totally pardoned in January 1815! Presumably this was because Bland was the first private doctor to arrive in Australia.

He immediately began private medical practice in Sydney, which apparently did very well, to the extent that in 1817 he was able to afford an assistant. But clearly he didn’t learn to stay out of trouble. In September 1818 Bland was back in court and convicted of libel against noone less that the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie. This time the good doctor was given a hefty fine and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment which he served at Parramatta.

Bland returned to his private medical practice, and in 1821 began a long association with the Benevolent Society, providing much needed medical services at the Castle Hill lunatic asylum. This was the colony's first mental hospital, established in 1811, which was in fact an old barn surrounded by a stockade. He must have been a very busy man, since he was also on the staff of the Sydney Dispensary. Plus he lectured and wrote on important medical topics such as Dislocations, Sanitary Reform and Bites of Venomous Snakes in Australia. The surgical instruments that he invented were published in The Lancet.

Most people agreed that despite his argumentative and somewhat prickly personality, Dr Bland was an able and patient surgeon who showed selfless affection for the sick and the poor.

133 Macquarie Street, Sydney, built on land that Dr Bland once owned.

For a medical man, I think some of his greatest contributions were, surprisingly, in the field of education. In 1830 Sydney College, which later became the very prestigious Sydney Grammar School, was founded with William Bland as president. He was also a generous benefactor to the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts and helped in its formal opening in 1833. [Mechanics’ Institutes were my favourite providers of education to working families in the C19th].

Only on one occasion was he a major promoter of higher education yet was not credited for his contributions. Dr Bland was very involved in the foundation of the University of Sydney, but his name was dropped from the senate because former convicts were excluded from taking part in the management of that august institution.

Bland was a person of well thought out political views. In 1830 he actively opposed attempts to alienate large areas of crown land, and in 1831 joined the committee of the Australian Landowners Association to fight against land regulations. At another public meeting in 1830 a committee, which included Bland, was formed to demand legislation by representation and to appoint a parliamentary agent in the House of Commons. 

NSW Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney

He had some failures. Petitions demanding representative government and trial by jury failed in 1830 and 1833. But he also had amazing successes. Having been a transported convict and gaolbird was clearly no handicap politically. Bland was an elected member of the NSW Legislative Council twice (1843–48, 1849–50) and after the introduction of responsible government, was appointed to the NSW Legislative Council once (1858–61). A banquet held in July 1856 celebrated the granting of a new Constitution by the British government. Dr Bland was given the honour of chairing the evening. In 1858 he was given a valuable award for his services to the community.

Perhaps the greatest medical office that he achieved was becoming the inaugural President of the Australian Medical Society, following its foundation in 1859.  Bland continued in active medical practice until his death.

In 1861 he was surprisingly declared a bankrupt, even though he had at one time been a large landowner, with property at Prospect Hill, Hunters Hill, Yass etc. What went so badly wrong? Bland died intestate in Sydney in 1868 at a decent age, and the family graciously accepted a state funeral. Not bad for an ex convict.

Sydney University had become a very impressive campus, 1859

I am very grateful to the author of Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot: The Remarkable Life of William Bland, Robert Lehane, for sending me a copy of the book. Unfortunately it was published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in Dec 2011, long after I had written this post. However there was more and more to learn about Bland, as I soon found out. Never has a person lived his life so brightly in the public gaze.

I am sure that much of the information. available on the public record, Bland would have prefered not to have seen in print. After discovering his wife's infidelity, for example, Bland placed an advertisement in the Gazette, warning vendors not to extend any credit to his (first) wife Sarah since he was no longer going to cover any of her debts. Worse still he had more court appearances, on both sides of the litigants' tables, than most people had had hot dinners. Some were very petty indeed.

Other projects would have made him very proud. For example, Bland proceeded with a very tricky operation on patients' aortas that had never been successful before. Although Bland's patients also died, he wrote up the surgical data in immaculate detail in The Lancet, building up a body of evidence that would revolutionise surgery after the introduction of anaesthesia. Another breakthrough came via Bland's collection of venomous snakes. He analysed the impact of each venom in minute detail and wrote up the treatments, both successes and failures, in The Lancet.

This was a man who moved from the ridiculous and degraded, to the sublime and heroic, and back again. Often.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
What an intriguing life and still so many questions remain unanswered. It is surprising to think that in spite of his many successes Bland was declared bankrupt and that his time as a convict could, seemingly not stand in the way of his career developments. One wonders why?

The building which Bland used as his practice in Sydney looks absolutely wonderful.What has become of it we wonder or does it remain as it was to this day?

the foto fanatic said...

The lives of some of these early settlers amaze me. What a multi-faceted character!

I suppose the necessity of medical practitioners outweighed other considerations back then, but I wonder at how a a doctor who had been imprisoned would fare these days if he tried to resume practice.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

The building is beautiful, still. Since 1970 it has been the home of the Royal Australian Historical Society, with a nice research library and good seminars rooms.

I cannot find why he was declared bankrupt, especially since these were the last few years of his life. He had bought a great deal of real estate, but had he over-extended himself? He was deeply involved in thoroughbred horse racing, so perhaps that accounted for his financial crisis.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

what a character, indeed! I didn't have time to elaborate on Dr Bland's clever inventions, except to mention that as he invented or improved surgical instruments, he had them published in prestigious medical journals.

But his clever mind wandered more broadly. On "Lost and Found", I saw his Atmotic Ship, designed to carry passengers and cargo from Sydney to London, powered by steam.

Another source said in 1843 Dr Bland published a brochure titled Suppression of Spontaneous Combustion in Wool Ships. A model of this invention was shown at the International Exhibition in London in 1851.

Hermes said...

"For more than forty or perhaps fifty years, has this brave, consistent and accomplished man been struggling, sometimes against imperial, and at other times against local tyranny, on behalf of a people who at one moment appreciated his motives, and at another joined with their own oppressors in disparaging, if not in vilifying their greatest benefactor. An elegant scholar, a man of science, and a gentleman of that antique school of urbanity and refinement, which modern barbarism and ruffianism have almost trampled into oblivion—William Bland'."

Another great to me unknown story Helen. I wonder if he bet on the gee-gee's too much?

Hels said...


A slight overstatement, since "tyranny" and "oppressors" are fighting words.

But correct. Bland really did put his considerable energies into 1. the right of an Australian to be tried by his peers, and
2. an Australian's right to participate in the election of his own government.

Deb said...

You Victorians may not know Bland's name. But we do. When I visited my specialist doctor last year, he gave his address as The William Bland Centre, Macquarie St.

Hels said...


that is so true. And I found a NSW electorate named after Brand that lasted for one Parliamentary term following Federation.

But these naming honours are small and fleeting. And they won't be known by citizens outside Sydney.

Intelliblog said...

Amazing character, Helen. Our early history here is Australia is filled with such stories of enterprising convicts who despite their irascible and fiery temperaments, overall did much to advance the lot of the colony and build the nation we live in today.

Hels said...


I think it was because the convicts were, largely, ordinary people, who were convicted and transported for nonsense crimes eg sheep stealing.

Of course Dr Bland was tried for murder, not sheep stealing. But he was a clever, hardworking and ambitious professional before he was transported, and still was after he arrived here.

Perhaps the relative freedom from class restrictions here, as compared with back in Britain, actually helped ambitious pardoned convicts thrive.

Robert Lehane said...

I found your nice post about Dr Bland while doing a spot of googling.

Thought you might be interested to know that my book about him, 'Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot: the remarkable life of William Bland', was published last month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Surprisingly, it's the first extended account of his life.
Robert Lehane

Hels said...


many thanks... I shall add a reference to your work in the blog.

I hope your book does very well. William Bland deserves it.

Jack M said...

Hi Helen,

Thanks for the interesting article, I have a client who works in the William Bland Centre and I goggled this and your article popped up, I also shared the article you wrote with the Secretary of The Sydney Mechanical School of Arts and he was unaware of William Bland’s involvement.

I suggest you might contact him as he seemed very interested in your findings as there is no mention of William Bland whatsoever in The SMSA records.

Thank you again,
Jack M

Hels said...


it is a super story, yes :)

If you or your colleagues would like to read Robert Lehane's book "Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot: The Remarkable Life of William Bland", you will find most of the answers. Or leave questions in the Comments Section of this post on Dr Bland.

Barry D said...

Morning Helen

Just read your Bloggs on Dr W bland , as my Great Grandmother was a servant of his I found that very interesting to read She even named one of her daughters after him.

Any ways nice read

Regards Barry D

Hels said...


Thank you! What an amazing connection your family had to William Bland. I am sure you knew more about him than any of the histories I have read.

Unknown said...

The Bland Oak Tree Oakdene Park Bland street Carramar was planted by Dr William Bland in 1842 on his country estate then "Mark Lodge estate" is the Oldest, Largest and Rarest "Quercus Virginiana" Oak Tree in Australia and still grows today :)

Hels said...


one of the best things about blogging is that the knowledge base expands as readers add new data or question old data, practically in real time. I love your contribution.

Kate A said...

Hi Helen,
I have just come across your article about William Bland from 2011. I need to reference this for my history source, but don’t know your last name. I completely understand if you don’t want to share, but it would be great if I could cite your blog.

Hels said...


glad to help a history student :) And don't forget to refer to my own sources, as underlined in the blog post.

"Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot: The Remarkable Life of William Bland" by Robert Lehane is well worth reading.

Helen Webberley
Art and Architecture, mainly

Unknown said...

I have just been informed that Dr William Bland is my Great Great Grandfather. I'm very intrigued to learn more about him.

Hels said...


that is amazing.. well done! Read Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot: The Remarkable Life of William Bland and then contact the author, Robert Lehane, for access to the original documents. He will be delighted to hear from you.

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