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.
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.