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The First Doctor of Moreton Bay

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Dr Henry Cowper, First Doctor of Moreton Bay

When Henry Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was 25, he arrived in Moreton Bay Colony, concurrently with Captain Logan, and was the only medical officer in the colony, working under appallingly primitive conditions. Until his arrival, the Commissariat Officer had performed any medical procedures which were required. He is remembered as being the first surgeon in the Moreton Bay Colony, who
introduced medical treatment into the convict settlement.

Rev William Cowper

Born in June 1800, in East Riding, Yorkshire, Henry was the eldest son of William Cowper and Hannah Horner. In 1809, his father brought the whole family to Sydney, as he had been recruited by Rev. Samuel Marsden to be the assistant chaplain in NSW.

At age 14, Henry was apprenticed to Dr William Redfern, the youngest medical student at the time. He took the place of James Shears, the first medical student in the colony, after Shears died in 1814. The apprenticeship included witnessing floggings and treating the results, dressing the wounds of the convicts participating in surgery (before the introduction of anaesthetics) and even relieving Dr Redfern on occasion.

At 17, Henry took the position of Assistant at the Hospital, and was entitled to a salary and free rations. In 1820, he was accredited as a surgeon and just 5 years later he was appointed Assistant Surgeon on the Colonial Medical Staff, and travelled to Moreton Bay a year later.

Convict Hospital Sketch 1830

Cowper kept accurate records of his time at Moreton Bay, that are still available to be read today. In January 11, 1829, there were 156 patients in the Convict Hospital attended to by him and his six convict attendants.

The diseases that killed most patients were pneumonia and dysentery. Low food rations, hard work, water drawn from a festering lagoon and the tropical heat combined to make the settlement vulnerable to eye and intestinal diseases.

Captain Patrick Logan

In 1830, when Captain Logan failed to return from an expedition, Cowper took a party of soldiers out to Logan’s last known location, to begin the search. He found the blood-stained waistcoat and scattered pages of Logan’s journal. The following day, he located Logan’s horse in a creek, and a shallow grave containing Logan’s remains. He had been beaten severely at the back of his head, and Cowper believed the injuries were inflicted by waddies (Indigenous people’s war clubs.).

Captain Logan named an area to the south of the settlement after Dr Henry Cowper, and the Cowper’s Plains convict station was established there in 1828. Until the 1870s, it was known as Cowper’s Plains, but the spelling gradually changed to Cooper’s Plains, to reflect the pronunciation.

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Emily Stack
Emily Stack
Editorial Team
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