Learn more about the history of the Royal Melbourne Hospital at its inner city Melbourne and Grattan Street sites.

Key points

  • The hospital opened in 1848 on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets
  • The hospital was rebuilt in the early 20th century, opening on 22 July 1913
  • The hospital moved to its current site on Grattan Street in 1944
  • The RMH has been at the forefront of many world-renowned innovations at its City Campus
Early image of Melbourne Hospital as a two-storey cottage
Early image of Melbourne Hospital as a two-storey cottage. Lithographed and published by Stringer, Mason and Co Melbourne. Dated 1848.

The Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH) 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.

The push for a hospital for the village’s poor and sick came from several quarters, with Superintendent of the Port Phillip District Charles La Trobe - later Victoria’s first Governor - leading the charge.

Indeed the hospital is older than Victoria itself - the hospital opened three years before the Colony of Victoria separated from New South Wales in 1851.

Over the years our presence in the inner city has grown from a 10-bed cottage on the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets that treated 89 inpatients in its first year of operation, to being a leading provider of health care and clinical teaching to medical, nursing and allied health professionals.

First Nightingale trained Lady Superintendent at the Melbourne Hospital
Dated 1890. The first Nightingale trained Lady Superintendent at the Melbourne Hospital was Miss Isabella Rathie, pictured with her nursing staff. Before 1890, nursing standards were varied and what training did occur was rudimentary. This changed with Rathie's appointment. She instituted the first formal teaching program in anatomy and surgery, physiology and medicine, and general instruction on practical nursing.

1840s: Humble beginnings

On 1 March 1841, a group of influential citizens headed by Superintendent of the Port Phillip District Charles LaTrobe called for a public meeting to discuss the urgent need for a public hospital in Melbourne. A committee was formed to raise £800 in a building fund, but a year later only £300 had been raised.

A government grant of £1000 and land was granted in 1845. The Melbourne Hospital’s foundation stone was laid on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets by the Mayor of Melbourne James Palmer on 20 March 1846.

The new hospital opened its doors to the public on 15 March 1848. 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 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 amidst 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.

The first Resident Medical Officer, Mr W Grylls, was appointed in 1852, 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 remained 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.

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

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

The first Nightingale-trained nurse and Lady Superintendent, Isabella Rathie, was appointed in 1889 and the first female doctors, Janet Greig and Alfreda Gamble, in 1896.

Specialist medical appointments in emerging disciplines included the hospital’s first anaesthetist Dr Edward Embley in 1894, and the first skiagraphist (later called radiologist) Dr Frederick Clendinnen in 1898.

A male ward circa 1900
A male ward, circa 1900 showing use of deckchair as seating for a patient as well as medical and nursing staff.

1890s to 1910s: Building a new hospital

Rapid strides were made in medicine and surgery during this time, 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. Since the establishment of the University of Melbourne in 1855, and particularly its Medical School in 1862, there had been constant calls for the hospital to be moved to closer proximity to the university.

Debate about a move to new premises raged for years. William Baillieu and Charles Jeffries, two of the members of the hospital’s Committee of Management, suggested in 1907 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
  • 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 newspaper) 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.

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 Trust provided £120,000 to finance the rebuilding and the foundation stone for the new hospital was laid on 23 March 1912. The new hospital was opened on 22 July 1913. With four operating theatres, electric lifts, X-ray equipment, an ophthalmic and other specialised departments, the hospital could now provide more efficient patient care.

Jane Bell left the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to take up her appointment as the hospital’s Lady Superintendent of Nursing in 1910. She established a new era in nursing administration through her outstanding ability and broad knowledge of hospital administration and teaching, 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.

Bowen Theatre at the Melbourne Hospital
Bowen Theatre at the Melbourne Hospital with surgeon William Moore (second from left). At this time typically a patient would be given an anaesthetic, either chloroform or ether, from a drop bottle onto an open lint covered mask. Dated 1900.

1920s: A crowded hospital

Overcrowding was a continual problem. By 1915 there were 320 beds, although in reality up to 375 could be accommodated using the balconies as makeshift wards.

The Caulfield Hospital, previously a military and repatriation hospital, came under the control of the Melbourne Hospital in 1925 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 included 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. The ‘Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe’ was opened 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. After eight decades of volunteer service to the hospital, diminishing numbers of auxiliary members and changing approaches to fundraising, the Central Council of Auxiliaries was closed in September 2007 and replaced by the RMH Friends and support groups.

Balconies being used as a ward
Dated c1920s. Balconies being used as a ward. Despite a new building with modern wards, operating theatres and electric lifts, overcrowding in the 1920s continued to be a problem. The balconies were once again utilised as make-shift wards. The use of blinds to keep out the wind, rain and cold only contributed in a small way to patient comfort.
Social worker talking to patient in traction circa 1953
A social worker discussing a patient's needs with patient in traction in bed, circa 1953. The Melbourne Hospital was the first Australian hospital to appoint social workers in the late 1920s.

1930s to 1940s: Planning for Parkville and World War Two

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 10 acres of this site, and an Act of Parliament was passed on 9 December 1935 which authorised possession of the land.

The Melbourne Hospital became known as the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 27 March 1935 through Royal Charter.

The Victorian Government announced the expenditure of £1,125,000 on statewide hospital rebuilding and extensions in September 1935. 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 hospital's Committee of Management.

Excavations for the new hospital began on 16 March 1939, with Stephenson and Turner - specialists in hospital architecture - preparing the building plans. Once again the problem of finance threatened the project.

A public appeal launched in 1940 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 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 Finschhafen, New Guinea having treated more than 35,000 American soldiers in that time.

1945 to 1970s: Moving to our current location

The hospital buildings were reconditioned and handed over to the RMH on 10 December 1944.

After the RMH had moved out, the old hospital buildings on the Lonsdale Street site was sold to the Government for £549,000 in 1945. This money was used towards redemption of the Government guaranteed loan. The old hospital buildings were occupied briefly by the Central Hospital from 1944-46 and then used by the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital from 1946-87.

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 specialities, reflected in the creation of specialised departments. A joint Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery was established in 1945, followed by the Plastic and Faciomaxillary Unit in 1946; the Department of Anaesthesia in 1948; the Cardiology Department in 1957; the Gastroenterology and Respiratory Units in 1964; and a Renal Unit in 1967. The Intensive Care Unit was created in 1972, although its precursor - a Resuscitation Ward - was set up in 1950. The Vascular Surgery Unit was established in 1975.

In time, other specialised departments and services followed.

Theatre nurse with Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator device 1984
Theatre nurse with Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator device. The first Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator surgery in the southern hemisphere was performed at the RMH in 1984.

1980s to 2000s: Renewal and redevelopment

Amalgamation with the Essendon and District Memorial Hospital (EDMH) occurred in 1986. 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 World War II. 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 included 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, the Health Commission suspended commissioning of the new EDMH in April 1982. The EDMH was amalgamated with the RMH in 1986 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. Services at this site had been gradually phased out by the early 2000s.

The RMH has undergone a period of redevelopment since the 1990s. 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 were 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. This body became the Melbourne Health Research Directorate on 1 July 2002, and then the Office for Research in October 2008. It manages research staff and grants and supports research activities and ethics committees.

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

The RMH became part of the Western Health Care Network on 1 August 1995, then the North Western Health Care Network from 28 October 1997, and Melbourne Health from 1 July 2000.

The former Melbourne Extended Care and Rehabilitation Service was renamed the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Royal Park Campus on 24 January 2005. 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 at the RMH Parkville site, including 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.

The RMH Parkville main entrance
The RMH Parkville main entrance

Today: The RMH Parkville

The RMH leads centres of excellence for tertiary services in several key specialities including neurosciences, nephrology, oncology, cardiology and virtual health.

Celebrating its 175th anniversary in 2023, the RMH is one of Victoria’s oldest public institutions.