Homœopathy in the Australian Colonies - Early Knowledge

  • Abstract:
    This article provides information about Australia’s contact with homœopathy, prior to the influx of immigrants as a result of the gold rush in the early 1850s. Early colonists had various means of obtaining knowledge about the latest developments overseas, including letters, pamphlets and books, overseas newspapers, and information from new colonists. The only real delay was the time it took for a ship to reach Australia. As a result, colonists had relatively early access to a knowledge of homœopathy or access to homœopathic medicines and the services of lay or qualified practitioners – far earlier than previously reported.

(Material researched & presented by Barbara Armstrong)



Many articles and websites which provide information about the history of homœopathy in Australia give the impression (or actually state) that homœopathy first came to Australia in the early 1850s, after the beginning of the gold rush. For example, Thiennette de Bérigny is often credited as the first to introduce homœopathy, although he did not settle in Victoria until 1855. Dr Johannes Günst is incorrectly credited with having introduced homœopathy to Australia, although he devoted himself to the study of homœopathy many years after it was already known and used in the colonies.


Yet we know that Dr Stephen Simpson, our first homœopathic physician, came to Australia in 1840. (2) We also know that our first ‘home-grown’ homœopathic doctor, Dr William Sherwin, commenced the study and use of homœopathy around 1842, and possibly earlier. (3)


These were medical practitioners, however, who would have gained knowledge of homœopathy via their medical journals and their medical colleagues. Indeed, Dr Simpson wrote one of the earliest English texts on the topic. (8)


What, if anything, did the general public in Australia know about homœopathy in those early days before the gold rush?



Although Australia was many miles and many months’ travel away from Europe, the colonists were not cut off from knowledge of happenings overseas. Of course, some news came from letters from home and from the newly-arrived colonists themselves. Early immigrants, such as Mr Edward Day who emigrated to South Australia in 1850, brought with them their homœopathic medicine chests and the accompanying books of instruction. (4)


A copy of Simpson’s book, printed in 1836 and inscribed by him to his cousin Charles Simpson in England (and now on a


bookshelf in Australia), also contains a list of dietary rules produced by Simpson. These are headed ‘General Rules for the Diet of Patients Under Treatment by the Homœopathic or Specific Method’. The list contains ‘Things Prohibited’ and ‘Things Permitted’.  Some English-speaking migrants may have brought with them their copy of Dr Simpson’s book, or a copy of his dietary rules.


A more ‘homely’ English publication was a book called ‘A Manual of Homœopathic Cookery’ by ‘The Wife of a Homœopathic Physician’, also printed in 1836. (29) An original copy of this cooking manual was recently purchased in Tasmania. The manual was designed to counteract what the authoress considered to be the negative and restrictive dietary rules provided by some homœopaths. As ‘the Wife’ said:


… so great a bugbear has the homœopathic diet become, that some are deterred from resorting to Homœopathy for fear they should be absolutely starved. (29)



That some of Hahnemann’s followers have in their dietetic rules exacted a ridiculous and injudicious abstemiousness, on the part of their patients, is not to be denied; but that such a starvation system was not countenanced, but on the contrary practically and explicitly discouraged by the illustrious founder of Homœopathy, will be evident from the following extract from his Organon. (29)


The anonymous authoress set out to provide recipes which would be in strict conformity with the rules laid down by Hahnemann, and yet provide numerous dishes to please the most fastidious appetite. She assured the readers that


… most agreeable beverages for the sick room can be prepared in strict conformity with the homœopathic rules, and that there are not wanting pleasant, harmless yet efficient substitutes for the favourite beverages … (29)


Might the recipes for homœopathic coffee, stuffed calves’ ears, or fricasseed calves’ feet have been used by some of Australia’s pioneer women? The book is certainly practical. It contains a 'tooth powder' recipe made from bread reduced to charcoal and then pulverised in a mortar, recommended where the reader was unable to purchase the homœopathic tooth powder available in chemist shops. There is also a recipe for 'portable soup' which is made of a shin of beef, a small knuckle of veal, and a couple of cow’s-heels cooked on a quick fire over several days until it is ‘brought to a proper thickness. It should, when done, be the consistence of thick hard glue, and will remain good for many months, if kept in a cool dry place.’ (29)


To supplement these texts, a regular feature of all Australian newspapers was news from the ‘Mother Country’, as well as items from Europe and America. When overseas newspapers arrived in Australia, these were scanned, and events which might be of interest to the local population were re-printed. Typically, these might include such items as the latest subjects being discussed in the House of Commons; the status of employment in the United States; reports of accidents, marriages, deaths, legal trials and duels; news about the royal family (English and European), and so on. In this way, Australians were kept informed of affairs back home and in other countries, the achievements and scandals of eminent people, and the latest fashions.



Many people who were advocates of the use of homœopathy arrived in Australia prior to the gold rush. These included the Roman Catholic priest, Dr Backhaus, who arrived in Adelaide in 1847 and who became well-known for using homœopathy (4); also, the Lord Bishop of Melbourne (the Right Reverend Charles Perry), and the Anglican Dean of Melbourne (the Very Reverend Hussey Burgh Macartney), both of whom arrived in Melbourne in 1848.


Bishop Perry’s background with regard to homœopathy is extremely interesting, as his enthusiastic support was the direct result of having been treated in England by Dr Stephen Simpson. Perry reported that he had used homœopathic medicines from about 1837. At that time he was a confirmed invalid.


A prescription given by Dr Simpson, who had written a book on homœopathy, effected a complete cure, and he [the Bishop] had always used those medicines since, when needing them, with the greatest benefit. He was now in excellent health, which, under God’s blessing, he attributed to homœopathy. (10)


Thirty-three years later, the Lord Bishop was still extolling the benefits of homœopathy. He became the patron of the Melbourne Homœopathic Dispensary, and his wife became one of the instigators and patrons of the Melbourne Homœopathic Hospital.


Dean Macartney said that:


there was a time when he ridiculed homœopathy, and thought it a delusion, but he had had good reasons for changing his opinion. He, as a strict conservative, disliked change from one system or order of things to another, and when he heard of this new discovery, had set his face against it. He was not willing to lend his ear to every newly-discovered theory which was to overturn the existing state of things, and effect a radical change in time-honoured institutions. Many respectable persons gravely stated that, rather than be cured of their complaints by the homœopathic system, they would prefer dying under a medical doctor. (9)



Progress in the knowledge and use of homœopathy in Australia, whose population at that time was mainly British, needs to be examined in the context of the progress in the knowledge and use of homœopathy in Britain. Dr Quin, who is credited as being the first practitioner to introduce homœopathy to England in 1828, originally practiced unreported and virtually unnoticed. His homœopathic practice came to the attention of the general public in 1832, when his full-time medical practice was established in London. He founded the British Homœopathic Society in 1844 with the help of ten colleagues, and in 1850 established the London Homœopathic Hospital. (6)


As early as July 1830, The Hobart Town Courier in Van Diemen’s Land (as Tasmania was known at that time) included the following item:


The new number of the Edinburgh Review, just published, contains an expose of the new system of cure, which, under the name of homo-opathic [sic] has produced a great sensation in Germany, although its very name has hitherto scarcely reached England. This system is founded on the assumption that every disease is curable by such medicines as would produce in a healthy person symptoms similar to those which characterize the given disease. Utterly rejecting the ancient dogma of the palliative method contraria contrarils,[sic] Dr Hahnemann (the great homoopathist, [sic] whose work is under review) says “similia similibus curentur,” or “let one nail drive out another”. (21)


This is probably referring to an anonymous item, Hahnemann’s Homöopathie, in the Edinburgh Review. (1) At this stage Hahnemann was still living in Coethen, Germany, prior to his move to Paris. As mentioned above, it was around this time that homœopathy was being introduced to the English public, and publications written in English started to appear.


Thus, it can be seen that Australians were not far behind in learning of the progress of homœopathy, particularly as it was evolving in English-speaking countries. The only delay was the time it took for a ship to sail from Europe or America to Australia, which could be about six months or so, depending on the weather.


By 1837 the antagonistic responses on the part of the British medical establishment were already reaching Australia. One item reported that:


The medical profession is at this moment in a perfect ferment at the extraordinary principles promulgated by a new sect of physicians, called Homœopathists, who declare that the old system of treating disease is entirely wrong, and ought to be superseded by Homœopathy. (22)


The writer found it extraordinary that ‘men of such talent as those comprising the physicians of London’ were arguing the merits of homœopathy ‘for successive nights’. (22)


In 1841 a person calling himself ‘Scotus’ wrote a letter to the editor of The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. He stated that homaeopathy (sic) had been


… very fashionable in London some eight or nine years ago; it created a great sensation at the time, and some of the advocates of this wonderful system acquired more fame and wealth, than the first surgeons or physicians of the day. (28)


Those administering homœopathic medicines ‘made a rich harvest to themselves’. This writer was not a supporter of homœopathy, however. According to him, this new system of practice was only popular because Londoners ‘are proverbially fond of novelty’, and the most wonderful cures were performed on ‘the nervous, hysterical, and hypochondriacal’. (28)


The writer may have been a chemist, given his subsequent statements.


The only sufferers during this homaeopathic [sic] mania, were the poor druggists, chemists, and apothecaries; luckily for them, its continuance was of short duration; otherwise they might have shut their shops; which the druggists in this part of the world will, I fear, be compelled to do from this old system of German quackery springing up amongst us. (28)


It appears that ‘Scotus’ was writing from New South Wales. If this was the case, the words ‘springing up amongst us’ implies that homœopathy was starting to take hold in that colony by 1841. This matches the general period of Dr Simpson’s arrival in Australia, and Dr Sherwin’s decision to seriously consider and experience the use of homœopathy.


By this revived system, chemistry and pharmacy will soon be no longer necessary; sufficient medicine to last for years may be carried in the waistcoat pocket. (28)


‘Scotus’ then ruined his case by stating that ‘the direful effect [of homœopathy] is seen every day in the number of funerals passing along our streets’. (28)


Even the editor of the Sydney Gazette found this statement regarding the major ‘death-dealing’ effects of homœopathy to be a bit far-fetched. The editor passed final comment, wondering if there really were any members of Sydney’s medical profession who patronized the homœopathic system, and if so, challenging them to respond and provide arguments for their support.


The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal of August 1843 re-printed an article from an overseas publication, the Quarterly Review, regarding the Provincial Medical Association’s desire to urge parliament to ‘suppress quackery’ with ‘the strong hand of the law’. (26) In this context, the word ‘homœopathist’ is mentioned along with botanists and ‘hygeists’. The author of the article disagreed with this approach and stated the reasons for this difference of opinion.


… even if the suppression of unlicensed practitioners were practicable, we are far from being satisfied that it would be either proper or expedient. If the art of healing had attained perfection, if physicians and surgeons could cure all those who apply to them, we grant that the case would be otherwise; but, as matters now stand, would not such a proceeding be a very tyrannical interference with the right of private judgment? (26)


It is interesting to note that the arguments on either side have not altered greatly since those very early days.


On 11 March 1846, Hobart’s newspaper, The Courier, reported the following:


A new body has been formed under the title of the English Homœopathic Association, to promote enquiry into the claims of homœopathy. Its president is Lord Robert Grosvenor, and its treasurer Mr. Marshall, the chief cashier of the Bank of England. The Association already numbers between two and three hundred members. (11)


By this time homœopathy was so well known that it was used as an adjective to describe anything which was distributed or conveyed in small quantities. An example is an article from Britain describing the Home Secretary in the House of Commons. Published in 1846 in The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser in New South Wales, the writer stated that when answering questions, the Home Secretary accomplished this by giving ‘as homœopathic a dose of information as possible, conveyed in the largest possible amount of indifference, superciliousness, and wholesome Parliamentary contempt.’ (23)


A punch in the face was described as being a dose which was ‘not infinitesimal’; a splendid banquet was ‘no homœopathic feast’; the first balloon ascent in Australia noted that in twenty minutes, the balloon had become ‘a mere speck, a homœopathic globule in the far distance’.


Madame Hahnemann’s charge and fine for illegally practicing medicine in France was also reported in the Maitland Mercury, under the heading ‘A FEMALE M.D.’, widow of the founder of homœopathy. (24)


In January of 1850, Adelaide’s newspaper, The Register, reported that a homœopathic college had been organised in Philadelphia. Also,


The Homœopathic Times says – Homœopathy enjoys the confidence of some members of the royal family, who, when attacked by disease, will not be treated according to any other system. (27)


The news item commented on the hold which homœopathy had on the favour of some of the leading members of the aristocracy.


In the same month, January 1850, The Maitland Mercury reported that the British Homœopathic Association now had 1270 members, and that 1300 volumes and 11,000 pamphlets on homœopathy had been distributed by the association during the year. A resolution was carried for the immediate establishment of a London Homœopathic Hospital. (25)



Moritz Joseph Heuzenroeder migrated with his family to the Barossa in 1845, and together with his brother Joseph, established the first pharmaceutical shop in Tanunda in 1849 or 1850. It is possible that they brought with them their knowledge of homœopathic medicines and they are the people referred to in an 1851 report that ‘the medicines are procurable here; some have been imported, and a German chemist undertakes to make them up’. (4)


However, the earliest advertisement for a pharmacy specialising in homœopathy which I have been able to find to-date comes from Hobart’s newspaper, The Courier. On 6 May 1848 the following item appeared (12):


Homœopathic Establishment.

The proprietor of the HOMŒOPATHIC
ESTABLISHMENT not requiring
boxes, scent bottles, and many articles such as
generally sold by retail chemists and perfumers, will
dispose of them on advantageous terms.
81, Macquarie-street.

The item infers that the proprietor had been in business as a chemist for some time, most likely using homœopathic medicines as well as other products used by druggists, but that he had now decided to specialise in homœopathic medicines alone. This is confirmed by a later advertisement (13):


Hobart Town Homœopathic Establish-

 ment, 81, Macquarie Street.
 “Similia Similibus Curentur.”
 MR. ATKINSON, after many years’ experience
 in the efficacy of Homœopathic Practice,
 which is making silent and rapid strides in England,
 France, and Germany, has decided on confining his
 treatment of diseases solely to that branch of the
 healing art. He may be consulted daily at the above
 Establishment from 10 to 12 a.m., and 6 to 8 p.m.
 Advice to the poor gratis every morning.

Later advertisements identify the chemist/consultant as Mr Frederick C. Atkinson, or Mr F.C. Atkinson. Therefore, although it is well documented that Dr Ebernezer Atherton arrived in Tasmania in 1866 and was possibly Hobart’s first fully-qualified homœopathic practitioner, it would appear that Mr Atkinson was providing homœopathic consultations and medicines in a commercial capacity at least eighteen years prior to that time, in 1848 or earlier. Mr Atkinson must have had reason to believe that homœopathy was sufficiently known and used in Hobart Town to warrant the establishment of a specialist homœopathic pharmacy.


Mr Atkinson then advertised that Dr George Delvin Nugent, surgeon and accoucheur from Dublin, who had worked for many years at the London Lying-in Hospital, could be consulted at the Homœopathic Establishment. (14) Later, Atkinson announced that Dr Nugent would provide a course of lectures on midwifery and the diseases of women and children at those premises. (15) It is unknown whether Dr Nugent used homœopathic medicines as part of his treatment plans for his patients, although obviously he would have had access to the medicines via the Homœopathic Establishment and may have availed himself of this opportunity. It can be imagined that Mr Atkinson would have expected Dr Nugent to use the homœopathic preparations from the Establishment, and to have encouraged his patients to do so as well.


It appears that the arrangement between Atkinson and Nugent did not last long, as the dissolution of the partnership was announced just one month later. (16) Nugent had been a convict, shipped to Van Diemen’s Land in 1843 after stealing pistols and a shirt from a public house in Wellington, New Zealand. Atkinson had hired Nugent as his servant at the Prisoner’s Barracks, but it appears that the partnership ended when Nugent obtained his ticket-of-leave. (17)  There followed a series of acrimonious public letters, with Atkinson telling people not to allow Nugent to obtain credit in Atkinson’s name. (17) Nugent replied that he had never requested credit in Atkinson’s name, and that he would give Atkinson his ‘infinitesimally small dose’ of humanity and another opportunity of acting honourably. (18)


Nugent then announced the establishment of The Hobart Town Self-supporting Lying-in Hospital, at 84 Macquarie-street, which must have been almost directly opposite Atkinson’s establishment. (19) It appears that this business did not last long, however, because his convict record shows that he was charged with ‘misconduct in not proceeding to Green Ponds in accordance with his pass’. (Green Ponds was one of the probation stations on the Midland Highway between Hobart and Launceston, just north of Bridgewater. It is no longer a place name on modern atlases.)


After the above altercations, Mr Atkinson disappeared from Tasmania’s public records. A man with the same surname, first name and initials appeared in the Melbourne records from 1852. In the Melbourne post office directory he was initially listed as a surgeon, but in the next and subsequent years this was altered to listings as a chemist and druggist. From 1862 he was listed as a registered medical practitioner. So far I have been unable to determine whether or not the Melbourne Frederick C. Atkinson is the same person as the Tasmanian Frederick C. Atkinson. If they are the same person, Atkinson’s chemist shop in Melbourne probably sold homœopathic medicines, and therefore pre-dated other known Melbourne suppliers.


Dr Nugent obtained his Free Certificate on 31 January 1850. Later the same year, he was charged with illegally practising as a medical practitioner, although he claimed that his sea chest containing all his papers had been lost after his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land . (20) Several notable local people vouched for his background and his credentials. In 1851 he advertised that ‘after due examination’ he had obtained a licence from the Colonial Medical Board. He moved to Victoria in 1852, where birth and death records show that he practised in various locations in the Victorian gold fields, near Ballarat.



Until this point, one major factor which had limited the wide-spread use of homœopathy in Australia was the relatively small, and largely dispersed, population in the colonies, and therefore the very small number of people who had the expertise or opportunity to promulgate its use. Even in populous Britain, practitioner numbers were small. All the earliest homœopaths learned via apprenticeships, which would have limited the numbers who could be trained. In 1849 it was reported that there were only 73 homœopathic practitioners in England and Scotland – 51 doctors and 22 lay practitioners. (7)


After news of the discovery of a rich gold field at Mt Alexander in Victoria finally reached London in April 1852, a massive influx of immigrants came to Australia. By the end of 1852, more than 80,000 people had arrived in Melbourne, and during the decade up to 1860, no fewer than 446,000 had taken their chance in crossing the perilous seas, in the hope of finding a new life and new opportunities in Australia. (5) These numbers included qualified and unqualified practitioners of homœopathy, and many more ‘home prescribers’ and supporters of homœopathic treatment. Homœopathic medicine chests were created for humans and animals, specifically designed for Australian conditions and situations where people were ‘in the interior’, beyond the reach of a medical man. Homœopathy began to flourish in the colonies, despite increasing opposition from the ‘regular’ medical practitioners.



Not all Australian newspapers prior to the time of the gold rush have been scanned in the preparation of this article. There are likely to be more hidden gems related to our homœopathic history which are still to be discovered. Yet it can be seen from the few examples provided that Australians were well informed about the successes of homœopathy, and in some cases had early access to the medicines and the services of lay and qualified practitioners. It is hoped that this article will dispel the myth that the knowledge and use of homœopathy did not commence in Australia until after the gold rush in the 1850s.



©   Barbara Armstrong



  • References:
    (1) Anon. Hahnemann’s Homöopathie. Edinburgh Review. Volume 50, 1829-1830.

    (2) Armstrong, B. ‘Australia’s First Homœopath’, Similia, Vol 18:1 [June 2006].

    (3) Armstrong, B. ‘Australia’s First Home-Grown Homœopath’, Similia, Vol 19:2 [December 2007].

    (4) Armstrong, B. ‘Australia’s First Female Homœopathic Doctor’, Similia Vol 20:2 [December 2008].

    (5) Cannon, M. 1993, Melbourne after the Gold Rush. Loch Haven Books, Main Ridge, Australia.

    (6) [http://www.homeoint.org/morrell/british/quin.htm] British Homeopathy during Two Centuries. Morrell, Peter, 2000, Homeopathe International. January 2009. Last accessed January 2009.

    (7) Rosenstein, J.G. 1849, Evidence of the Truth of the Homœopathic Medical Practice, Its Progress and Development, Thomas Mark, Kidderminster.

    (8) Simpson, S. 1836, A practical view of Homœopathy: Being an address to British practitioners on the general applicability and superior efficacy of the homœopathic method in the treatment of disease, Balliere, London, England.

    (9) The Argus. 15 April, 1859.

    (10) The Argus. 8 November, 1870.

    (11) The Courier (Hobart), 11 March, 1846.

    (12) The Courier. (Hobart), 6 May, 1848.

    (13) The Courier. (Hobart), 19 May, 1848.

    (14) The Courier. (Hobart), 17 June, 1848.

    (15) The Courier. (Hobart), 12 July, 1848.

    (16) The Courier. (Hobart), 16 August, 1848.

    (17) The Courier. (Hobart), 2 September, 1848.

    (18) The Courier. (Hobart), 16 September, 1848.

    (19) The Courier. (Hobart), 21 October, 1848.

    (20) The Courier. (Hobart), 19 January, 1850.

    (21) The Hobart Town Courier. 31 July, 1830.

    (22) The Hobart Town Courier. 28 April, 1837.

    (23) The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser. 8 July, 1846.

    (24) The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser. 23 October, 1847.

    (25) The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser. 12 January, 1850.

    (26) The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 26 August 1843.

    (27) The Register, 16 January, 1850.

    (28) The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 14 August, 1841.

    (29) The Wife of a Homœopath. 1836, A Manual of Homœopathic Cookery, G. Bowron, London, England.