History of Sydney Medical School

The University of Sydney was founded in 1850 by an Act of the legislature of New South Wales and is the oldest university in Australasia. Sydney Medical School at Sydney University formally came into being on 13th June 1856 when the Senate appointed a Board of Examiners including Professor John Smith, the Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics and eight medical practitioners of Sydney. Professor Smith was later to become the first Dean of Medicine.

Prior to the establishment of the University there had been several attempts to develop medical education on a regular basis in New South Wales. Medical training had been initiated by William Redfern who was transported to New South Wales in 1801 and appointed Assistant Surgeon in Sydney in 1808; together with William Bland, another emancipist surgeon, he had accepted occasional apprentices for training.

The Medical Practice Bill of 1838 referred to the possibility of a medical school in Sydney, and in 1846 it was proposed that a medical school be established at the Sydney Infirmary later renamed Sydney Hospital. Students were admitted as apprentices to the practice of the Infirmary not later than 1849 and received official recognition from the directors in 1851. An Honorary Physician at the Sydney Infirmatory (1849) Henry Grattan Douglass is credited by Francis Merewether as the person who persuaded Wentworth to move in the Legislative Council for the establishment of the University of Sydney.


The Act of Incorporation of the University of Sydney provided for the grading after examination of degrees in Medicine as well as in Arts and Law. Strenuous efforts were made from the beginning to start a medical school at the University and support was especially strong from medical members of the Senate. However, lack of finance was the main stumbling block: there was a definite objection from some quarters to the idea of having to share the University's slender means with a further faculty. In 1859 the Senate of the University adopted a scheme of medical teaching which was intended to commence in 1860, and instructed the University's architect, Edmund Blacket, to prepare plans for an anatomy school. However, the plan was opposed on the grounds that 'the constitution of such studies and the establishment of a medical school would retard the completion of the curriculum in the Faculty of Arts'. Further schemes in 1866 and 1874 likewise failed.

Two major events assisted to bring about the realisation of a scheme for a medical school. First, in 1868 there was an attempt upon the life of H.R.H. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, during his visit to New South Wales. The Duke recovered, and as a thanks offering the community raised the sum of £30 000 for a suitable memorial. The Duke wished the money to be allocated for the erection of a hospital and a public meeting resolved that a Prince Alfred Memorial Hospital should be erected on the site of the Sydney Infirmary. This proposal encountered legal difficulties and the University resolved the problem by granting the use of twelve acres of University land, provided that a portion of this was reserved for a school of medicine. The Prince Alfred Hospital Act of Incorporation, which was passed in 1873, stipulated that the hospital's medical staff be appointed by a conjoint board consisting of the Senate of the University and the hospital's Board of Directors sitting together, and that it be open for clinical teaching to students of the medical school when established. The hospital was opened for patients in 1882. In the same year the government agreed to finance a medical school.

The second event that influenced the Senate in its determination to proceed with the medical school was the death of John Henry Challis in 1880, which resulted in the bequest of the residue of his substantial estate for the benefit of the University. Applications were subsequently invited for a chair of anatomy and physiology and Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart came from Edinburgh to fill the chair and to establish the medical school. Sydney Medical School owes its development to the genius of Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart, a man of great ability, determination and energy who presided as its Dean until his death in 1920.

Anderson Stuart

The medical school commenced teaching in March 1883 with four students in a four-roomed cottage built between the Great Hall of the University and Parramatta Road. Anderson Stuart (photo) pressed for the construction of a more suitable medical school and in 1887, a new building subsequently known as the Anderson Stuart Building was commenced on plans prepared by Blacket. The first part of the building was finished in 1891, and the building was completed in 1922. To strengthen the Medical School's teaching staff, Anderson Stuart turned to the Edinburgh Medical School and recruited Alexander, Robert Scot Skirving, J.T. Wilson and D.A. Welsh. MacCormack and Scot Skirving took up appointments in 1883; Wilson became professor of anatomy in 1890 when Anderson Stuart relinquished the position to concentrate on his other duties, and Welsh was appointed to the new chair of pathology in 1902.

Initially the medical curriculum was of five years' duration, the first year being spent in the Faculty of Arts. In 1890 the medical course proper was lengthened to five years and in 1926 it was extended to cover six years. In 1986 the five-year curriculum which had been introduced 12 years earlier was replaced by a revised six-year course. In 1992 the Medical School took the major decision to move to a four-year, graduate-entry curriculum with a completely new admissions process and a new curriculum based largely on problem based and self-directed learning. The first students were admitted to the University of Sydney Medical Program in 1997; the Medical Program is an exciting innovative curriculum at the leading edge of medical education.

The medical school outgrew the Anderson Stuart Building and the University received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to construct a new building. The Blackburn Building, named in honour of Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn who was Dean of the Medical School from 1932 to 1935 and Chancellor of the University from 1941 to 1964, was opened to clinical students in 1933. This too proved inadequate and in time the Bosch Building was erected on a site adjoining the Blackburn Building. Two stages of the complex were completed: lecture theatres in 1965, and a principle block including a library and animal houses in 1968. A third stage, an eleven-floor building, was not undertaken.

The Bosch Building is named in honour of George Henry Bosch, a Sydney businessman who has been the Medical School's greatest benefactor, and through whose generosity full-time chairs in histology and embryology, medicine, surgery, and bacteriology were established between 1927 and 1930. The first occupant of the full-time chair of medicine was C.G. Lambie, who held the position from 1930 until 1957; the first appointment to the full-time chair of surgery was Sir Harold Dew, from 1930 to 1956. At the same time the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine was established, funded by the federal government and controlled jointly by the government and the University.

In 1933 the chair of obstetrics became fulltime and was occupied by J.C. Windeyer, and in 1958 the Queen Elizabeth II Research Institute for Mothers and Babies was established to investigate causes and prevention of illness and deaths of mothers and infants. In recent years the Medical School has, frequently with the assistance of the N.S.W. Health Department and its area health services and hospitals, established chairs and other senior academic positions in an ever expanding range of disciplines.

Following the closure of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, the School of Public Health was established in 1987 with funds from the then Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services. The School of Public Health continues to receive substantial support from the Commonwealth Government through the Department of Health and Ageing.

During the 1990s the Medical School's clinical schools have taken on increased responsibility for the delivery of the Medical School's educational programs, the management and stimulation of research and financial and administrative matters. The clinical school include all publicly funded health care institutions within the area health service with which they are associated together with approved private institutions. Four of the Medical School's clinical schools are in Sydney (Central Clinical School, Northern Clinical School, Western Clinical School, Children's Hospital at Westmead) and one is in the central west of New South Wales (School of Rural Health based in Dubbo, Orange and Bathurst). The Australian National University Medical School has developed out of the Canberra Clinical School, part of the University of Sydney from the early 1990s until the end of 2006. Each clinical school is headed by an Associate Dean. The Medical School's two University Departments of Rural Health (one at Broken Hill and one at Lismore) and the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety at Moree supplement the Medical School's rural education activities, adding a strong population health focus.

The University of Sydney Medical Program continues to hold its place at the forefront of medical education world-wide. It has been made available under licence to numerous universities, both in Australia and internationally. Enquiries about access to the curriculum under licence should be addressed to: