Australia’s First “Home-Grown” Homœopath

  • Abstract:
    This article provides information about some of the early homoeopaths in New South Wales, and in particular, the life and beliefs of Dr William Sherwin, who was Australia’s first “home-grown” homœopath. It is also likely that Dr Sherwin was Australia’s second homœopath, after Dr Stephen Simpson.

(Material researched & presented by Barbara Armstrong)

 

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

In 1858, Dr Francis Bellamy and Dr Charles Meymott were reported as being the only two homœopathic practitioners in Sydney.14 Dr Bellamy gained his medical qualifications (LSA, 1837 and MRCS, 1843) in England, and had a position as Assistant Surgeon to the Homœopathic Cholera Hospital, Jersey. He settled in Australia by 1855. Dr Meymott obtained his medical qualifications (LSA, 1838 and MRCS 1836) in England. He made several voyages to Adelaide as the ship’s surgeon superintendent (1849, 1850, 1852) and finally settled in NSW in 1858.

 

In the same year, 1858, Dr Meymott gave a lecture at the School of Arts in Sydney on “New Truths and Their Reception”, in which he discussed the possible reasons for which medical practitioners might reject new ideas such as those put forward by the exponents of homœopathy.5 Giving the example of a fictitious new discovery in the way time could be determined, without the use of a clock or watch, he stated “It is from the watch and clockmakers we should expect to find the greatest opposition to its introduction, and the reason is obvious, because, not only would they be the greatest losers by it, but they would have to give up all their old notions and habits.”5 To Meymott it was evident that the same sort of hostility toward homœopathy would come from established and well-entrenched medical practitioners of “the old school”.

 

Not all people, however, were antagonistic towards homœopathy. As Dr Meymott put it, again using his clock analogy, “On the other hand, there would be little or no opposition on the part of those who never had any particular ideas about the best way of keeping the time, nor any interest in the sale of watches or clocks.”5

 

Early Australian newspapers reported the success of homœopathy in England and America, some immigrants brought with them their homœopathic medicine chests, and family members in England recommended homeopathic treatment for their relatives in far-off Australia. The colonies were not cut off from learning about homœopathy; but homoeopathy started to become more well-known and commercially available during the 1850s.

 

Bell and Huntley’s homœopathic pharmacy was established in George Street, opposite Bridge Street, in Sydney. A later 1863 advertisement by Bell states that the pharmacy had commenced business in 1856, although neither Bell, nor the pharmacy, was listed in Sydney’s post office directory until 1858.

 

By 1857, SL Bensusan & Co, importers and merchants of Bridge Street Sydney, were advertising the sale of homœopathic medicines. These came from the Pharmacy of Mr Leath of London, for whom Bensusan’s declared that they were sole agents for Australasia.

 

By this time there were also sufficient supporters to hold a meeting, on 13th July 1858, to propose the establishment of a free homœopathic dispensary.13 The aim of the dispensary was to “enable the poor and working classes in Sydney and its neighbourhood to obtain the benefit of Homœopathy.”13 Supporters included many notable citizens such His Excellency, Sir William Denison (the Governor-General of Australia), several parliamentarians, and the Archbishop of St Mary’s, as well as many prominent local businessmen, including Thomas Mort, who became the dispensary’s president. The Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary was granted the use of part of Bell and Huntley’s homœopathic pharmacy.

 

A year later, at the first annual meeting of the Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary on 4 August 1859, Dr John Le Gay Brereton was appointed to join doctors Meymott and Bellamy as an additional medical officer at the Dispensary.13 Born in Yorkshire, England, Dr Brereton obtained his qualifications (LRCS Edin, MD St Andrews & LSA London 1851) in Scotland and England. While still in England, he took on the principles of homœopathy. He also became a convert to the health benefits of the Turkish bath, and set up Sydney’s first such establishment soon after his arrival.

 

There was, however, another medical practitioner in the colony who was already using homœopathy to treat his patients prior to those dates, although he did not publicly announce his “conversion” until several years later, in the early 1860s.

 

A DECLARATION of INTENT

On 8 January 1863, Dr William Sherwin delivered a lecture at the School of Arts, Sydney, on “Physiology and Pharmacodynamics”. The lecture was in support of homœopathy, and in it he announced his intentions to practise using the principles of homœopathy. This lecture was reproduced as a publication.9

 

The opening remarks of his presentation caught my attention:

 

It is now well-nigh twenty years since I first gave my attention to Homœopathy; and after that lengthened period of consideration and experience, I am confirmed in the opinion, not now hastily avowed, of the general correctness of the doctrines of Homœopathy, as expounded by Hahnemann.9 (My italics.)

 

This would mean that Sherwin had started to seriously consider and use homœopathy around 1842, and may have heard about this new method of treatment earlier than that date. Dr Sherwin was, therefore, Australia’s first “home-grown” homœopath. On the evidence available to-date, it also appears that William Sherwin was Australia’s second homœopath (after Dr Stephen Simpson in 1840).

 

SHERWIN'S BACKGROUND

William Sherwin was born at Parramatta, New South Wales, in 1804. At the early age of thirteen he was apprenticed to Dr William Bland, who was an interesting character in his own right. Originally transported as a convict for seven years for mortally wounding a man in a duel, Dr Bland received a pardon a year after his arrival in Australia, and established Sydney’s first full-time private practice in 1816. It was because his practice flourished that Dr Bland was able to take on William Sherwin as his apprentice. Dr Bland eventually became the first president of the medical association which was formed in Sydney in 1859.3

 

Sherwin travelled to England in 1824, where he completed his medical studies – the first Australian youth to do so. In 1826 he obtained a certificate as accoucheur and another certificate from the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons, and was admitted as a member. After his return to Australia, he served as assistant surgeon to the Melville Island settlement in North Australia.

 

In 1829, Sherwin moved to Parramatta where he established the first fully-private practice in that township.4 He resided at George Street, Parramatta in 1832/33, but moved to Macquarie Street, Parramatta in 1834. In 1836 the Tarago area, near Lake Bathurst, was granted to William Sherwin, so that in 1839 he was listed as being at Lake Bathurst. (Tarago was referred to as “Sherwin’s Flats” until the railway arrived there in the 1880s, when the name of the township was changed.)6 But this was a bad time to take on pastoral activities, because there were several years of drought from 1835 to 1838, and a depression from 1840 to 1845.

 

Possibly because of these climatic and financial difficulties, Sherwin moved to Sydney in 1840. This was the same year that Dr Stephen Simpson, Australia’s first homœopath, arrived in Sydney, having left England because of the strong criticism of his work by the medical establishment there. Dr Simpson arrived in Port Jackson in January 1840 and, being unable to secure a Government post in Sydney, he set up house in Jamison Street, near the Circular Quay end of George Street. Simpson “hoped to find a new life, new opportunities, and freedom to pursue what he considered to be the ‘medicine of the future’”.2 He soon found, however, that the majority of the colony’s medical practitioners were as much against the new “heresy” of homœopathy as those who had derided and attacked him and his work in England. Simpson remained in Sydney for six months before he abandoned his Sydney practice and moved to Moreton Bay in Queensland, after the death of his wife and newly-born child.1

 

At that time, in 1840, Sydney’s population was very small, and obviously the community of medical practitioners in the colony was very much smaller. Using Low’s City of Sydney Directory for 1844/1845, a rough estimate of the population of adult bread-winners listed is around 5,000, with only 35 or so being surgeons and/or accoucheurs.  The population was so small that most surnames listed had single entries, with no other adults in Sydney having the same surname. Even in the boom years of 1857, there were still only 83 people listed in the Sydney post office directory as being “Physicians and Surgeons”. It is highly possible, therefore, that Simpson and Sherwin met. It may, in fact, have been Simpson who first introduced Sherwin to the concepts of homœopathic practice, triggering Sherwin’s desire to follow this up with further study and experience during the 1840s. Sherwin always believed that a good practitioner “only lives to learn”, so he would have been open to considering new ideas and methods.9 If Simpson and Sherwin didn’tmeet, Sherwin must have commenced his interest via correspondence with his colleagues overseas, subscriptions to overseas journals, and discussions with new arrivals to Sydney who brought information about the medical revolution which was taking place in England and America. It is also likely that Sherwin had access to Simpson’s book, “A Practical View of Homœopathy” (1836), which was possibly the first work in English on the subject of homœopathy. See note below

 

In 1844 Sherwin wrote the first medical publication by a native-born Australian, an eight-page pamphlet which explained changes in foetal circulation at birth.4 According to his obituary in the New South Wales Medical Gazette, the Governor-General, Sir Richard Bourke, also asked him to write a report “On Catarrh in Sheep” which was published in London. He also wrote papers: “Phytolacca as a Cure in Diphtheria”; “Tuter: Poison-plant in New Zealand”; “Diodon, or Poison Fish of New South Wales”; and “Strychnine, &c., of New South Wales”.

 

Sherwin was listed in the 1857 Cox & Co’s Sydney Post Office Directory as William Sherwin, MD, surgeon, at 5 College Street, on the corner of Francis Street.

 

In 1860, Sherwin returned to England and was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, receiving his diploma in 1862. At about the same time the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred on him an honorary degree.7 Given Sherwin’s avowed interest in homœopathy, he probably took the opportunities provided by his visit to England to learn more about this method of treatment directly from experienced English homœopaths. Sherwin returned to Australia in November 1862, and took up residence and practice on the south side of Liverpool Street, two doors from the corner of West Street. By 1865 he had moved to another premises in Liverpool Street, again on the south side, two doors from the corner of Forbes Street. By 1874, he and his wife, Harriet, were living at 333 Sea View Terrace, in the first house of the series of five terraced houses, corner of Liverpool Street and Forbes Street.

 

SHERWIN'S FIRST LECTURE

Sherwin’s first lecture in Sydney, in January 1863, was on “Pharmacodynamics”.

 

A true science of Pharmacodynamics should inform us of the precise effect of drugs upon the human organism, and for this purpose the drug had to be introduced into the organism according to a definite method, in measured quantities, at regular intervals, and while the prover enjoyed perfect bodily and mental health; and it was reserved for the genius and perseverance of the founder of Homœopathy, the immortal Hahnemann, to pave the way for a positive science of Pharmacodynamics, by instituting a series of drug-provings which will commend themselves at all times to the confidence and admiration of every friend of scientific truth.9

 

Sherwin believed in a strictly inductive and pure process of reasoning. Physiology and pathology are “the true bonds of union between pharmacodynamics and therapeutics”. Without the most accurate knowledge and aid of physiology and pathology, “it is useless to attempt to construct the art of healing upon a scientific basis”.9

 

Sherwin made the following comments about Hahnemann, Hahnemann’s Materia Medica, and Hahnemann’s later followers:

 

Hahnemann was perhaps the finest type the world has known of a true medical philosopher. Some of his followers of this day may have degenerated into mere routine practitioners. Such persons do not study his pages; they have recourse to poor supplementary helps. Their Materia Medica is not that of HAHNEMANN; it is derived from such supplementary and often very unsatisfactory and unreliable sources. Idlers and dawdlers have no right to practise medicine, whether as allopaths or homœopaths.

 

It has been laid down that three things are necessary for a true homœopathic practitioner:- 1st. He should be a gentleman. 2nd. He should know his profession. 3rd. He should know the Materia Medica of Homœopathy. No true homoeopathist requires to visit his patients with his Repertory in his pocket; nor does he ignore physiology. He may make mistakes – humanum est errare;   but he has a lamp to his path, a safer pilot to steer for him. His therapeutic law holds good; and it is his privilege and his pride to confess that he only lives to learn. Such is the homoeopathist of the better class. The faults and errors of practitioners of another class must not be attributed to the Master, nor to his method of practice.9

 

SHERWIN on HOMŒOPATHY

On 24 January 1863, Dr Sherwin delivered a second lecture at the School of Arts, on“Evidence of the Benefits of Homœopathy, and Statistics of its Success”.8 Whilst his first talk explained the meaning and principles of homœopathy, his second listed the four key principles and characteristics of homœopathy:

 

  • It is a system of symptom treatment by specifics. He quoted Hahnemann, stating “for the physician the disease consists of the totality of the symptoms – the collection of symptoms is the guide to the choice of the remedy”.
  • Medicines tend to cure diseases similar to those they tend to produce.
  • A single medicine should be employed at a time so that the effects can be determined and so that the ingredients aren’t “so adverse to each other as to constitute a most incongruous and chaotic mass”.  This is because the effects of “a plurality”, direct and relative, “are beyond our ability to calculate”. (Sherwin gave examples of allopathic medicines had that fifty, sixty-five, and in one extreme case, four hundred ingredients.)
  • The medicine should be “in such quantity only as shall not permanently affect the patient after the cure is accomplished”.8

 

He then tackled some of the objections most frequently brought against homoeopathy. For example:

 

One grave error in the attacks on homœopathy is that of treating the infinitesimal doses as the essential characteristic of the system. This is not the case. Their use forms no part of homœopathy, which is the science of treating by “Similia” not by infinitesimal doses.8

 

He explained that an infinitesimal dose may be used with homœopathy, but it is not homœopathy per se. Sherwin complained that often such numerous lesser issues tend to become the most important ones, and are substituted for the primary aim and true essentials. “There is a certain class of minds apparently unable to discriminate between essentials and non-essentials.”8 He admitted that there were great differences among Hahnemann’s disciples as to the strength of dose to be employed.

 

In Germany homœopathic medicines are oftener given in larger quantities, that is, in appreciable doses – the infinitesimal dose being no necessary constituent of homœopathy. Homœopathy, as now accepted, has determined the point that the physician must exercise his judgement as to the dose, varying it from the highest dilution down to one or more drops of the undiluted tincture, as individual cases might demand.8

 

He also railed against those sceptics who judge and assert that homœopathy is nonsense, without bothering to properly study it. “The attitude in which truth is to be successfully acquired is that of inquiry, not of assertion.”8 He stated that if a person gives an opinion without being fully acquainted with the subject, no-one attaches any importance to what he says. The same should apply to those who provide pre-judgements about homœopathy – their comments are worse than valueless.

 

Sherwin argued that cures which result after the use of homœopathic medicines are not the result of the imagination, as proposed by some; as proof, “signal success” is achieved when homœopathy is used with young children and animals. “The recorded cases are admirably calculated to show the real power of homœopathic remedies over the diseases of the brute creation, and are also well calculated to put a stop to the twaddle about the influence of the imagination, to which so many are in the habit of ascribing the success of homœopathic treatment.”8

 

Finally, he presented statistics from various countries around the world which compared the much lower death rates for various conditions of those who used homœopathic treatment, with the much higher death rates of those who used allopathic treatment. For example, in Hungary, patients with cholera who were treated homœopathically had a death rate of under 4%, while those treated by allopathic physicians had nearly a 50% death rate. Also, a select Committee of the Canadian Parliament in 1861 reported that the mortality rate under homœopathic treatment was forty per cent less than under ordinary methods.8


Sherwin concluded

 

On the testimony of these witnesses we might rest the case, and reasonably claim that a method of treating disease which causes a reduction of 50 per cent in the general mortality of all acute diseases is indeed “an improvement in medicine”.8

 

PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE

Despite the publicity and promotion provided by Sherwin and many others, at this stage in the history of New South Wales, homœopathy did not achieve the same level of official support as in South Australia and Victoria.

 

By the time of the third Annual General Meeting of the Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary in 1861, it was struggling, in part because of financial difficulties. It was felt that some problems could be resolved if a ward could be established within the Sydney Hospital or Infirmary, as the government met half the costs of such charitable institutions. Direct approaches to the hospital had failed, so supporters campaigned to secure government backing instead. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that, in September of 1863, three petitions were submitted to the Legislative Assembly.10 These requested that patients of institutions which received government funds should be granted the option of homœopathic treatment from the institution if they so desired. On 29th September 1863, this proposal was put to the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, and debated at length.11 It was pointed out that homœopathy had widespread acceptance in Europe and America, and the abundance of evidence and statistics from overseas showed that homœopathy had now proven itself as a science which was extremely effective in saving lives and therefore warranted support from the government.

 

While homœopathy had its influential supporters within the Assembly, the Premier and Colonial Secretary, Charles Cowper, was very much against the proposal, and it did not have sufficient numbers to win the day. Even some supporters of homœopathy were unsupportive of the proposal as submitted. One person, for example, was worried that it would unnecessarily antagonise the existing medical staff at the institutions concerned. He stated that he would support a separate homœopathic institution, but did not want to arouse the hostility of doctors who had volunteered their services to the existing government organisations free-of-charge for many years. He anticipated that the doctors would remove their current services from the institutions if the proposal succeeded. Others worried that if homœopathy were to be permitted, then other unorthodox methods of treatment would also have to be permitted. The proposal was lost; seventeen members voted for it and twenty-seven voted against.11

 

The Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary closed. There was a later attempt to establish a homœopathic dispensary in 1892, which, from the records, appears to have survived one year only. For a number of years, therefore, until the establishment of the Sydney Homœopathic Hospital in 1902, homœopathy in New South Wales developed with more of an emphasis on private practice, rather than an emphasis on the provision of homœopathic treatment via institutions, as was the case in Melbourne, for example.

 

SHERWIN'S FATE

When Sherwin gave his first address and “came out” as a homœopath, he realised that it would cause a furore among his medical colleagues.

 

Some will term me “Seceder”, others, less charitable, will call me “Charlatan;” but as a charlatan is a pretender without principles, I shall this evening submit to this respectable audience the principles on which I practise my profession, and shew, therefore, that the opprobrious term charlatan is not applicable to myself.9

 

How legitimate were his worries that, following his announcement, he would be ostracised by his colleagues?

 

There is an example from that period which shows the type of treatment which could be meted out to declared homœopaths, including those who had “orthodox” qualifications. In 1864, Dr Brereton (one of the doctors mentioned above who was involved with the Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary) was appointed to the position of visiting medical officer to Sydney’s Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum. This resulted in the publication of a letter and an article in the Australian Medical Journal, titled “Homœopathy in High Places”, which was reported on and discussed at length, even in Melbourne’s newspaper, The Argus.12 The author of the article was indignant about the appointment, stating that “it is impossible not to be conscious of the most unqualified disgust at witnessing this flagrant defiance of propriety”. According to him, the other medical officers at the institution had been “pointedly insulted”. These doctors were thought blameworthy for not having taken some course of action to object to the appointment of a homœopath; if they wished to continue to enjoy the esteem and confidence of their professional brethren, there was “no course open to them save that of immediately resigning their appointments”. This would be “the most dignified mode of indicating their own sense of the affront that has been offered them, and it would very fitly represent the general feeling entertained by the profession on the subject of the monstrous imposture which, singularly enough, finds its most powerful advocates among the educated and otherwise intelligent”.12 A prompt response was “their obvious duty to make”, and would be “hailed by the most cordial and unanimous approval”. The medical profession, through its increasing social influence, should “bring pressure to bear upon any Government that dared to defy” their opinions and outrage. The writer believed that there should be “no hesitation in making this power strongly felt and promptly acknowledged”.

 

The editor of The Argus did not plead the case for or against homœopathy. Instead, he argued that there should be a willingness to hear arguments, and to admit the value of proof. “The violation of this principle, we are sorry to say, has been singularly characteristic of the opposition offered to homœopathy.”12 His conclusion was that, “since there is nothing to prove in the abstract that homœopathy unfits a man for the discharge of his moral obligations to his neighbour or the public, there can be no objection, on public grounds at least, to any such appointment.” After some controversy, however, Dr Brereton was dismissed from his position in 1865.

 

Sherwin’s anticipation of ostracism by his colleagues was apparently correct. His obituary reported: “He delivered some lectures at the School of Arts, and announced his intention of commencing practice on homœopathic principles, and hence probably the little communication since, between him and the general body of the profession.”7

 

Dr Sherwin died in 1874, at Sea View Terrace, Darlinghurst.

 

LATER NOTE:

I have since discovered that there were a few earlier English works on the topic of homœopathy, but Simpson’s book was still one of the earliest.

 

©   Barbara Armstrong

       www.historyofhomeopathy.com.au

 

  • References:
    (1) Armstrong, Barbara. Australia’s First Homœopath. Similia, Vol. 18, No. 1. June 2006.

    (2) Cilento, Sir Raphael. Presidential Address. The life and residences of the Hon. Stephen Simpson. The Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Vol.8, No.1, 1965-6.

    (3) Cobley, John. William Bland (1789-1868). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol 1. Melbourne University Press, 1966.

    (4) Ford, Edward. Bibliography of Australian Medicine 1790-1900. Sydney University Press, 1976.

    (5) Meymott, Charles. New Truths and Their Reception. Sydney: J.R. Clarke, 1858.

    (6) Mortlock, AJ. Lake Bathurst: Investigating its history and environs. Canberra Historical Journal. Sept 1982, no 10.

    (7) New South Wales Medical Gazette. No 4, 1874.

    (8) Sherwin, William. Evidence of the Benefits of Homœopathy, and Statistics of its Success. Sydney: Hanson and Bennett, 1863.

    (9) Sherwin, William. Physiology and Pharmacodynamics. Sydney: Hanson and Bennett, 1863.

    (10) Sydney Morning Herald, 10th and 23rd September, 1863.

    (11) Sydney Morning Herald, 30th September, 1863.

    (12) The Argus, 9th July, 1864.

    (13) The First Annual Report of the Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary. Established July 1858. With a list of subscribers and rules of the institute. Sydney: Reading and Wellbank, 1859.

    (14) The Third Annual Report of the Sydney Homœopathic Dispensary. Sydney: Heading and Wellbank, 1861. For more details about Bellamy and Meymott, refer to the entries on this website.