Book Review - Sawbones, Saddle Burns & Soothing Balms
Medical Practitioners in the Richmond Valley 1866-1986
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Reviewed by Robin Osborne

Busy in retirement, orthopaedic surgeon Neil Thompson has just self-published this extraordinary labour of love, documenting the names and professional histories of every registered medico to have practiced in the Richmond Valley over the past 120 years.

While a head count is not offered, a rough tally of the names in the index suggests that a roll of at least 500 doctors have ministered to the area’s populace over this time, with many having experiences going well beyond the strictly medical.

The author describes Kyogle practitioner James Aitken, who also worked in the Tweed, as “a man of high principles… after a young girl patient of his complained to him about indecent behavior towards her by her father, Dr Aitken took his stick and the law into his own hands and beat the guilty father about the head, so that the man had to have his scalp wound sewn up by another doctor in the town.”

The magistrate levied only a small fine because the father was deemed to have deserved it.

Arranged alphabetically by locations, from Alstonville to Woodburn, the 228-page volume has a foreword by Dr/Brigadier Brian Pezzutti, NNSW LHD chair and Army reservist, who notes that the catalyst for the book was well known local surgeon Austin Curtin.

He writes that “the painstaking research of this historian is to be admired all the more because it was undertaken pretty much on his own,” adding it was a “long and tortuous task.”

The same does not apply to the reader’s task: while focusing on the biographical content, the work is peppered with historical photos and entertaining anecdotes.

As a Bangalow resident, I was attracted to the story of the Corlis Family, said to have had “a profound effect on the medical development of the Richmond River region.”

First came Josiah, a minister in Canada who changed tack to study medicine at McGill University in Ontario. Not to be outdone, his wife Margaret – pictured in Victorian attire in her rooms – squeezed in getting her MD around a busy life with her husband and three sons, graduating in 1885, and moving with the family to a “more friendly climate”. She would become one of the earliest female doctors on the NSW and Australian registers.

After practising in central Sydney, she moved to Bellingen, only to encounter an infamous imposter, masquerading as a doctor, who tried to defraud her. That he failed is hardly surprising.

This is a cracking read, and a valuable contribution to the region’s history. The author would like someone else to take up the challenge to report our medical history since 1986. Hopefully this will not take another 100 years, for the recent decades have been just as interesting and characterised by change. 

Sawbones, Saddle Burns & Soothing Balms is priced at $50 including postage and handling. It is available from:

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PO Box 1788
Byron Bay 2481