The Royal Melbourne Hospital is one of Australia’s leading hospitals. It was the first hospital in Victoria – established in 1848 to serve the young and thriving community of Melbourne. 

RMH City Campus - Lonsdale Street 1920s

The push for a hospital for the village’s poor and sick came from several quarters, with Charles La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District and later Victoria’s first Governor, leading the charge. Indeed the hospital is older than Victoria itself which only separated from New South Wales in 1851, three years after the hospital opened.

Read more about our story and explore our origins and the development of the hospital’s City Campus as it has grown from a 10-bed cottage on the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets treating 89 inpatients in its first year of operation, to a leading provider of clinical teaching to medical, nursing and allied health professionals. In the process the hospital has also developed a reputation as a world-class institution involved in many innovative research programs that have led to clinical improvements for patients.

Today some 85,000 inpatients and over 170,000 outpatients a year are treated at the present Grattan Street site with the same dedication and commitment to patient care as those that lead to the hospital’s foundation.

Humble beginnings: 1840s
The Melbourne Hospital - Lonsdale Street, 1848
The Melbourne Hospital - Lonsdale Street, 1848

On 1 March 1841, a group of influential citizens, headed by Charles LaTrobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, called for a public meeting to discuss the urgent need for a public hospital in Melbourne. A committee was formed whose aim was to raise £800 in a building fund, but a year later only £300 had been raised. In 1845, a government grant of £1000 and land was granted and, on 20 March 1846, the Melbourne Hospital’s foundation stone was laid on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets by the Mayor of Melbourne, James Palmer.

On the 15 March 1848, the new hospital opened its doors to the public. Initially it had only 10 beds but by the end of the year this had been increased to 20. In its first year 89 patients were admitted and further 98 people were treated as outpatients. Disbursements for the year were £576 and receipts were £1016.

The first medical honoraries were physicians Godfrey Howitt, Arthur O’Mullane and Edmund Hobson and surgeons David Thomas, Augustus Greeves and William Campbell. Hobson, who died before taking office, was subsequently replaced by the Coroner, William Wilmot. These were doctors elected on 15 July 1847 by subscribers who had contributed at least £1 to the new hospital. Elections for medical staff were held every four years amongst intense competition. Candidates solicited votes via the press, with handbills, at clubs and even through door-to-door canvassing. Voting was held at the Athenaeum, where how-to-vote cards were issued and bookmakers were present. This method of election of medical staff continued until 1910.

In 1852, the first Resident Medical Officer, Mr W Grylls was appointed, however he only stayed for one month. He was followed by Dr Richard Graves, whose stay was also short as he died in March 1853. Graves was replaced by Dr William Garrard, who was to remain in the position until 1858. Garrard later served as an Honorary Consulting Surgeon to the hospital for 20 years as well as serving on the hospital’s Committee of Management.

Also in 1852, in response to the great influx of people to the Victorian goldfields, the hospital erected a temporary wooden building of 28 beds for fever patients. This brought the total number of beds to 104. In 1854, a central block was added, and in 1857 the western block followed. In 1861 came the outpatient department, dispensary, and another ward, and in 1867 the two eastern pavilions were built. Beds then numbered about 300.

From 1864, the hospital undertook the training of medical students and in 1890 nurse training, and then later various allied health professionals. Its first Medical Superintendent, Dr Hubert Miller, was appointed in 1881, and in 1885 the first special department of the hospital, the Department of Skin Diseases was established for outpatients.

Lady Superintendent Isabella Rathie and nurses, 1890s
Lady Superintendent Isabella Rathie and nurses, 1890s

This was followed in 1889 with the appointment of the first Nightingale trained nurse and Lady Superintendent, Isabella Rathie and the first female doctors, Janet Greig and Alfreda Gamble in 1896. Specialist medical appointments in emerging disciplines included Dr Edward Embley, the hospital’s first anaesthetist in 1894 and Dr Frederick Clendinnen, the first skiagraphist, later called radiologist, in 1898.

Building a new hospital: 1890s - 1910s
Typical ward for males in the late 1890s
Typical ward for males in the late 1890s

During this time, rapid strides were made in medicine and surgery, but the actual hospital facilities were inadequate, accommodation had reached a crisis point, and the building itself was condemned by a Royal Commission in 1892. The Commission recommended that the old site should be abandoned and a new hospital built at Parkville. In addition, since the establishment of the University of Melbourne in 1855, and particularly the Medical School in 1862, there had been constant calls for the hospital to be moved in closer proximity to the University.

Debate about a move to new premises raged for years with constant calls for the hospital to be moved closer to the university in Parkville. In 1907, William Baillieu and Charles Jeffries, two of the members of the hospital’s Committee of Management, suggested that the hospital should be moved to the market site in Parkville; the market move to a more distant and cheaper site; the old hospital site be sold to the City Council as the site for a new Town Hall; and the old Town Hall be demolished and the site be sold to commerce. Another suggestion was that the hospital be moved to a 12-acre site in the Domain. This last suggestion was popular, with the notable exception of the Trustees of the Edward Wilson (of the Argus) Trust. They had promised a large sum of money for the rebuilding on the condition that the hospital be rebuilt on the old site unless, within six months, a new site was acquired and approved by the Trust.

Operating theatre showing an anaesthetic being given via a drop bottle on an open lint mask, c1900
Operating theatre showing an anaesthetic being given via a drop bottle on an open lint mask, c1900

Arguments over a new hospital site were settled in 1908 when the decision was made to rebuild on the old hospital site. Six months of effort to secure a site at Parkville had failed. The Argus Trust provided £120,000 to finance the rebuilding and on 23 March 1912 the foundation stone for the new hospital was laid. On 22 July 1913 the new hospital was opened. With four operating theatres, electric lifts, x-ray equipment, an ophthalmic and other specialised departments, the hospital could now provide more efficient patient care.

In 1910, Jane Bell had left the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to take up her appointment as the hospital’s Lady Superintendent of Nursing. Through her outstanding ability and broad knowledge of hospital administration and teaching, she established a new era in nursing administration and continued to do so until her retirement in 1934. Firsts for the Melbourne Hospital during this time included the appointment of a Theatre Sister in 1912, Sister Tutor in 1921, the establishment of a Preliminary Training School for Nurses in 1927, and a special diet kitchen in 1929.

A crowded hospital: 1920s
Overcrowding lead to the use of balconies as make-shift wards in the 1920s
Overcrowding lead to the use of balconies as make-shift wards in the 1920s

However overcrowding was a continual problem and, by 1915 there were 320 beds, although in reality up to 375 could be accommodated using the balconies as makeshift wards. In 1925, the Caulfield Hospital, previously a military and repatriation hospital, came under the control of the Melbourne Hospital and convalescent patients were sent there to recuperate. This arrangement remained until 1948, when management of the Caulfield Hospital moved to the Alfred Hospital.

The 1920s also saw the formation of the first auxiliary groups within the hospital with the Red Cross Auxiliary, later called the Toorak and South Yarra Auxiliary, formed in 1921. The Birthday League was founded on 2 May 1922 with members being sent birthday greetings from the League in return for a donation to the hospital. This year also saw the opening of ‘Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe’ by the Kiosk Auxiliary on 8 June 1922. By 1924, auxiliary group numbers and activities had grown and a central Executive Council of Auxiliaries was formed on 1 May 1924. In September 2007, after eight decades of volunteer service to the hospital, diminishing numbers of auxiliary members and changing approaches to fundraising saw the closure of the Central Council of Auxiliaries to be replaced by the RMH Friends and support groups.

Planning for Parkville and the Second World War: 1930s - 1940s
The Melbourne Hospital was the first Australian hospital to appoint social workers in the late 1920s
The Melbourne Hospital was the first Australian hospital to appoint social workers in the late 1920s

Increasing overcrowding led to the Committee of Management’s decision to build a new hospital on the Cow and Pig Market site at Parkville. A Government Order-in-Council on 30 July 1929 had reserved an area of a little over ten acres of this site and on 9 December 1935 an Act of Parliament was passed which authorised possession of the land. On 27 March 1935 through Royal Charter, the Melbourne Hospital became known as The Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH).

In September 1935, the Victorian Government announced the expenditure of £1,125,000 on State-wide hospital rebuilding and extensions. This sum included £75,000 as a government grant and £75,000 as a loan from unemployment relief moneys for the RMH. In addition a further loan of £500,000 was guaranteed to the hospital. The balance of the cost of rebuilding was to be raised by the Committee of Management of the hospital. Excavations for the new hospital began on 16 March 1939, with building plans prepared by Stephenson and Turner, specialists in hospital architecture. But again the problem of finance threatened the project.

In 1940, a public appeal was launched that was an outstanding success. Nearly £350,000 was raised including a donation of £140,000 by Ernest and George Connibere to finance the Nurses' Home in memory of their brother, the late Sir Charles Connibere. The foundation stone for the new hospital was laid on 13 November 1941 by the Premier, Mr Albert Dunstan.

Plans for immediate public use of the new hospital were abandoned with the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The Commonwealth Government requested that sections of the new buildings be set-aside for the 4th General Hospital, United States Army. For two years, from March 1942, the Army occupied the hospital. The first patient was admitted in April and the first wards occupied in May. The Army left in March 1944 for Finschaven, New Guinea having treated more than 35,000 American soldiers in that time.

Moving to our current location: 1945
Occupational therapy in the 1950s
Occupational therapy in the 1950s

The hospital buildings were reconditioned and handed over to the RMH on 10 December 1944. In 1945, after the RMH had moved out, the old hospital buildings on the Lonsdale Street site was sold to the Government for £549,000. This money was used towards redemption of the Government guaranteed loan. The old hospital buildings were then occupied briefly by the Central Hospital from 1944 to 1946 and then used by the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital from 1946 to 1987. This site was later refurbished as the QV Centre comprising retail, office and residential areas. Remnants of the old hospital buildings remain at the site in the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre building.

After the war, further building works included the North Wing in 1950 and the South Wing Outpatients Block extension in 1975. The opening of the Clinical Sciences Building in 1965 provided much needed space for clinical and research services. This period also marked the growth of medical specialties, reflected in the creation of specialised departments. In 1945, a joint Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery was established, followed in 1946 by the Plastic and Facio-maxillary Unit, in 1948 by the Department of Anaesthesia, in 1957 by the Cardiology Department, in 1964 by both the Gastroenterology and Respiratory Units, and in 1967 a Renal Unit. 1972 saw the creation of the Intensive Care Unit, although its precursor a Resuscitation Ward was set up in 1950, and in 1975 the Vascular Surgery Unit was established. In time, other specialised departments and services followed.

Renewal and redevelopment: 1980s
The first Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator surgery in the southern hemisphere was performed at the RMH in 1984
The first Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator surgery in the southern hemisphere was performed at the RMH in 1984

In 1986, amalgamation with the Essendon and District Memorial Hospital (EDMH) occurred. Plans for the establishment of this hospital can be traced back to 1945 when the Hospital and Charities Board asked the Essendon Council to consider establishing a hospital in honour of the men and women who served in the Second World War. A lack of funds postponed its building until the 1960s and in 1964 the maternity wing was officially opened.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the extension of the hospital with the addition of more maternity beds and the construction of a general hospital. Despite the completion of the extensions, in April 1982, the Health Commission suspended commissioning of the new EDMH. In 1986, the EDMH was amalgamated with the RMH following recommendations by the Health Department which suggested that the hospital could operate more economically and effectively, benefiting from the latest techniques and technology available at the RMH. However, by the early 2000s, services at this site had been gradually phased out.

From the 1990s, the RMH has undergone a period of redevelopment. Older wards have been refurbished, an underground car park opened in 1993, research laboratories have been built, newer emergency, radiology and cardiology facilities and new operating theatres and an Intensive Care Unit constructed in the late 1990s, with most upgraded again by 2016. The creation of the RMH Research Foundation in 1994 to coordinate research activities further strengthened the hospital’s capacity for medical and clinical research. On 1 July 2002, this body became the Melbourne Health Research Directorate and then, in October 2008, the Office for Research and now manages research staff and grants and supports research activities and ethics committees.

In July 1995, the RMH assumed responsibility for the psychiatric services of the former Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital and, in June 1996, the hospital took over the general infectious diseases services of the former Fairfield Hospital after its closure. This was followed, on 7 February 1997, by the official opening of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service at the RMH, and on 19 January 2000, by the opening of the John Cade Building housing mental health units and services.

On 1 August 1995, the RMH became part of the Western Health Care Network, then the North Western Health Care Network from 28 October 1997 and from 1 July 2000, Melbourne Health. On 24 January 2005, the former Melbourne Extended Care and Rehabilitation Service was renamed The Royal Melbourne Hospital – Royal Park Campus. This campus became the hospital’s centre of ambulatory and continuing care services, incorporating geriatric, outpatient and rehabilitation services. At this time, the hospital in Grattan Street, Parkville becomes known at The Royal Melbourne Hospital – City Campus.

The RMH has been at the forefront of many world-renowned innovations including the first successful kidney transplant in Australia and the development of Australia’s first cardiac pacemaker in the mid 1960s, and in the 1980s, the invention of artificial blood vessels, the first defibrillator operation in the Southern Hemisphere and the pivotal groundwork for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. In the 1990s, Australia’s first keyhole coronary bypass operation was performed and hospital psychiatrists lead Victoria’s move from an asylum-based to a general and hospital based system.

The RMH City Campus today
Cardiac catheter laboratory - 2012
Cardiac catheter laboratory - 2012

In the 2000s, the RMH has opened Victoria’s first dedicated Stroke Unit, is developing the world’s first Coeliac Disease vaccine, performed Australia’s first ABO blood incompatible kidney transplant, is one of the first hospitals in the world to introduce wireless ‘Pill Cam” endoscopy use, are leaders in neurosurgery, and in 2012 announced a world first investigation into the use of Botox to reduce the debilitating tremors and shakes in people with multiple sclerosis. Celebrating its 165th anniversary in 2013, the RMH is one of Victoria’s oldest public institutions. Currently, almost 100,000 patients are admitted annually and there are over 645,000 outpatient appointments and 57,000 emergency presentations each year.

Today the hospital is a key partner in the internationally renowned Parkville Precinct. The Precinct is home to world-leading organisations in healthcare, research and tertiary education. The Precinct includes the RMH, University of Melbourne, Royal Women’s Hospital, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne Brain Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital, Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre. The Precinct is famous for turning vibrant research programs into clinical improvements for patients. The rapid translation of biomedical research into clinical care will ensure all Victorians will benefit from world-class healthcare.