Thomas Corbin was a pioneering medical practioner in late nineteenth-century Adelaide and South Australia.
Early Life and Career
Thomas Wilson Corbin, later to become the patriarch of the South Australian Corbin clan, was born to the Reverend John and Elizabeth Corbin at their home in Friar Gate, Derby on 10 August 1843. John was a prominent Congregationalist Minister in Derby and London. Elizabeth passed away from tuberculosis in June 1846, aged only 33, leaving her husband with two-year-old Thomas to raise alone. Within two years, however, John had remarried. Margaret Johnson, then 37, was the daughter of another Independent Minister, the Reverend Joseph Johnson, whose family would doubtless have been known to John through the tight-knit church community. Their wedding took place at his bride’s home town of Farnham in Surrey on 27 April 1848. Their own son, Thomas Wilson’s half-brother Joseph John, was then born in Derby in July 1849.
Thomas was evidently a self-reliant and motivated young man, despite - or possibly because of - the death of his mother. The Reverend John also ensured his son received a formal education. From age seven he attended school in his mother’s home town of Newark-on-Trent; then from 1853 Thomas was a weekly boarder at the Palmer House Academy in Holloway, near his father and stepmother Margaret's new home in north London, for the next six years. This was an obvious choice for the family in many ways, as its Principal was the Reverend Alexander Stewart, a Congregationalist Minister like John, who was assisted in his work by his two sons, one of whom (Halley Stewart) was also active in the church before having a distinguished career in business, politics and philanthropy .
Thomas clearly thrived on his studies and pursued a strong vocation to contribute to society through a career in medicine. In 1859, he was apprenticed to Dr Tait, a general practitioner, at Canonbury, with whom he learned dispensing. By 1861, still only 17, he had become a student of famous St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in Smithfield, London, which he attended during the day, while continuing to assist Dr Tait at his dispensary in the evenings. At that time, it was necessary to attend a medical school for only three years to become a qualified practitioner. Towards the end of his term, Thomas acted as a dresser to the famous surgeon and pathologist Sir James Paget, another committed Christian and friend of Charles Darwin. In 1864, Thomas passed his final examinations at the Royal College of Surgeons and the Society of Apothecaries, but his certificate to practice as a surgeon was not granted until sometime later, as he was still under the prescribed age!
While he enrolled at the London University he decided on the advice of Dr Paget to forego further studies for a Bachelor in Medicine and devote his time to work in everyday practice. At 21 he was appointed resident dresser on board the seamen's hospital ship the "Dreadnought" at Gravesend, on the Thames. Possibly as a result of conversations with his patients there, or just out of a desire to see the world, Thomas made the momentous decision to travel to Australia the following year, 1865. Mr George Wills, one of his father's deacons at Crouch End, was instrumental in his appointment to the position of Surgeon on the clipper “Orient”, bound for Adelaide.
Life in Rural South Australia
On his arrival in South Australia in July 1865, Thomas brought with him a letter of recommendation to Dr Moore, the Colonial Surgeon. As there was no immediate Government position for him, on Dr Moore’s advice Thomas took up a position as assistant surgeon at the unusual setting of the Burra Burra copper mine in the northern Mt Lofty Ranges, about 160km north of Adelaide. At that time, Burra boasted a community of several thousand people, though its mining days had already reached their peak. As in England, the young doctor would have been confronted with typhoid and unsanitary conditions, especially as the town’s miners often lived in dwellings dug into the banks of the creek. First aid and nursing training, with an emphasis on basic hygiene, seemed to him critical in raising the health levels of the poor and this became an abiding philosophy throughout his working life.
Thomas’ efforts in Burra and his demeanor during his first year in the colony must have made a good impression with Dr Moore. In 1866, he was selected by the then Governor of South Australia, Sir Dominic Daly, to act as Assistant Colonial Surgeon and House Surgeon at the Adelaide Hospital. However, it seems Thomas yearned for more community-based experience. Two years later he resigned these prestigious positions to purchase a private practice at Riverton, a rural centre in the Gilbert Valley, about 100kms north of Adelaide - he would have seen the town initially on his travels from the city up to Burra Burra. His decision to practice in the town also coincided with the coming of the railway linking it with Adelaide, but may also have been influenced by romance. It was at Riverton that Thomas reportedly first met Laura Hardy (1841-1906), the second child of surveyor Alfred Hardy (1813-1870) who had travelled out from England in the late 1830s to assist Colonel William Light in laying out the city of Adelaide.
Laura had grown up in her parent’s home in the Adelaide foothills near Glen Osmond, in a house which still exists today as part of the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide. Her father’s letters described her as having a 'sweet disposition' and being 'very beautiful' as a young girl, showing a keen interest in learning and, like Thomas, the welfare of others. On 16 June 1869, Thomas and Laura were married by Bishop Short of Adelaide at the beautiful stone church of St Michael, then in the open fields at Mitcham south of the city, now surrounded by leafy suburbia.
Returning to take up the practice and married life in Riverton, the couple’s first child, Elizabeth, was born there on 3 March 1870. It seems highly probable that Thomas named her after his own mother, who had died in his early childhood. Nine more children were to be born to Thomas and Laura over the following thirteen years, and all but two survived to adulthood.
Social Conscience in Adelaide
After a return visit to England, Thomas and his young family returned to Adelaide in 1873. Working in one of the city’s poorest quarters, the couple’s strong social conscience appears to have been permanently forged, leaving a profound legacy. Thomas and Laura purchased a substantial practice and lived in it with their family, at 368 King William Street south. The property included garages and stables at the rear, doubtless in frequent use given that the practice covered not only much of Adelaide but also its hinterland, extending some 50km from the city as far as Gawler. The building remains, although the façade has been substantially altered, and is now used (2017) as a senior secondary college.
So far as Thomas’s medical career is concerned, in addition to running this busy practice, he was also appointed Honorary Surgeon at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where he was a Board Member, as well as acting as the surgeon to the Home for Incurables at Fullarton almost since its inception in 1879. His sons, Drs Cecil and John Corbin were later to follow their father in working in these various capacities and at least two of his daughters became nurses. Thomas was clearly committed deeply to his profession and to community service. He co-founded and was appointed principal examiner of the St John Ambulance Association in Adelaide. Keen to ensure that the unregistered practice of medicine in the State could be prevented, Thomas was also elected to the position of Vice President of the South Australian Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA) in 1879. He was to become its second President and served as its Treasurer for a total of 31 years. Corbin family historian Ruth van Aaken has listed among the many achievements of this group the recognition and registration of women as medical practitioners.
The Importance of Laura Corbin
Knowing some of the character and history of Thomas’s remarkable wife, Laura, his support for this initiative would have been entirely appropriate. Indeed, no account of Thomas’s life could possibly fail to consider Laura’s own unique contribution to her community. The following summary includes extracts from her substantial entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography , in which she is described as a “community worker”.
“Continuing her family's charitable traditions, in 1876 [Laura, then 35 and having already had six of her ten children] joined Mary Colton and others on the foundation ladies' advisory committee in planning what became Adelaide's Children's Hospital. She became deeply concerned at the plight of poor mothers, often widows, forced to leave children at home alone, sometimes with tragic consequences, while they worked at charring, laundering or office cleaning.”
“In May 1887 Laura founded the South Adelaide Day Nursery. Designed . . .for 'taking care of the children of women who go out to work by the day', it opened with four children in a rented room. Laura visited city missions to publicize the service. Admissions, staff and facilities gradually increased: by 1889 weekly attendance averaged forty-one. Babies and children under 6, admitted for twopence per day between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., were washed, freshly clothed and given good food and care by carefully-chosen staff. Health and hygiene were paramount considerations and the 'sleeping decoctions' some mothers administered were banned. With her family's backing, Laura devoted herself to every aspect of management; she presided over both general and house committees, whose pioneering rules were adopted by crèches in other colonies.
Despite 'disappointments and discouragements', she persevered, encouraged by the children's wellbeing and mothers' gratitude.”
A visit to Britain and France in 1891, possibly occasioned by her father-in-law’s death the previous year, provided Laura with an opportunity for her to study similar facilities in London and Paris . This gave rise to the name South Adelaide crèche, which:
“ . . . became a colony-wide cause: many, like Port Elliot's needlewomen, giving essential money and gifts in kind. Governors' wives were patrons."
“During the 1893 depression admissions temporarily plummeted. Laura inaugurated a soup kitchen and founded a Women's Distress Relief Fund, working indefatigably . . . to organize and distribute necessities to impoverished families.”
“In August 1896, in a ceremony watched by thousands, [Laura] laid the foundation stone of a distinctive new crèche building, reminiscent of a doll's house, in Gouger Street, using generous donations from the popular children's Sunbeam Society. In 1897, having seen 37,000 admissions, she resigned from her presidency and 'labour of love', taking her last opportunity to protest against employers' long hours for working women. Sadly, no picture of this extraordinary woman has yet been found, however this in itself may be the result of her own modest character, which from all accounts seems to have been devoted to the welfare of others. Viewed in context of pre-Federation Australian society, albeit from a position of some influence, Laura’s life was notable for its energy and philanthropy. Her long campaign to improve the condition of working women and their families in the fledgling city into which she was born, was a lasting achievement. The Crèche she founded continued to operate for about 40 years, although the building itself was sadly lost in 1996 after a heritage controversy.
Laura eventually succumbed to pneumonia aged 65, on 24 October 1906, at the Adelaide suburb of Woodville, where she and Thomas had retired three years before. She was the subject of a lengthy obituary in the Adelaide Register the following day.
During a final visit to England in 1908, it is understood that Dr Thomas Corbin visited the Grand Priory of St John at St John's Gate, Clerkenwell, London, which now houses the Museum of the Order. While there, he signed the Homage Roll as an Honorary Associate of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, an honour bestowed upon him on 4 November 1890. This was likely to have been one of the first such awards, certainly in Australia, as the Order it was only given its Royal Charter in 1888.
Though in declining health, Thomas lived to see his two Doctor sons Cecil and John return from active service as surgeons in World War One. In John’s case, this included his involvement from the initial landings at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli; and for both men, service in the equally nightmarish environment of northern front in France, experiences which were to have a lasting impact on both their lives.
Dr Corbin Thomas Wilson died in Woodville just after his 75th birthday, on 18 August, 1918. The couple and many of their children are buried at the Anglican Cemetery at Mitcham, South Australia, the suburb in which they were married. Apart from his St John’s award, Thomas is also remembered in a somewhat novel fashion, in the naming of Corbin Place, in the Canberra suburb of Macgregor, in a subdivision whose streets commemorate Australian medical pioneers. An abiding impression of Thomas and Laura is one of their service to others and their steadfast compassion. This shines through in a special family treasure retained by our NSW Corbin cousins, a letter written by Thomas to his ailing first cousin James Bentley Corbin in 1907.
The Advertiser, 'Death of Dr. T. W. Corbin', 20 August 1918, p5.
Islington: Education, British History Online. www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol8/pp117-135.
Dickey, Brian, “The South Adelaide Creche, 1887-1936” accessed 2 July 2017 at http://www.sahistorians.org.au/175/documents/author/dickey/the-south-ade...
Riverton Local History Centre, SA - unpublished paper on medical officers who practiced in Riverton from 1856 – 2000.
Letters of Alfred Hardy to his family in England 1842–46 and 1850, in the collection of the State Library of South Australia, D 7366(L).
Jones, H, “Corbin, Laura Mary Louisa (1841-1906)” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian national University, 2005, accessed on line 2 July 2017, at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/corbin-laura-mary-louisa-12857
Oborn, P, “St Michael’s Anglican Church – 150 Years of Parish Life 1852-2002”, Anglican Parish of Mitcham, 2002.
Van Aaken, R, “William Corbin and Mary Bentley of Ringwood”, unpublished paper 2008.