A local legend and free spirit
By chance I stumbled upon the lonely grave of Dr William Theodore Hodge, buried in 1934, in the Derby Pioneer and Aboriginal Cemetery in 2008.
He turned out to be the founding doctor of the practice in which I have worked for the past 30 years.
Dr Hodge migrated from England in 1896. He was the first western trained doctor to work in the Perth suburb of Claremont and in the Wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin. He was an innovative and inventive modern doctor who became a legend in the Kimberley where he died tragically, on the day prior to his retirement, at 75 years of age. His story is illustrative of the life and medical practice of a pioneering doctor in metropolitan, rural, and remote practice in Western Australia at the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries.
In June 2008, I was teaching in Derby, Western Australia. There were six medical students studying there and I invited them to accompany me on an early morning visit to the Derby Pioneer and Aboriginal Cemetery.1
My aim was to plant, in each medical student, a seed of interest in medical history. I wished to focus on how far western medicine had advanced in the previous 130 years in the prevention and treatment of common infectious diseases such as dysentery, measles, malaria, syphilis, tuberculosis, and the nutritional deficiency disorders of beriberi and scurvy from which many of those buried in the cemetery had died.2
In the Church of England section we came upon the only grave of a doctor in that cemetery (grave number 83). The inscription on the tombstone stated:
Dr William Theodore Hodge MRCS, RM & DMO
Died 20 November 1934
A beloved physician
The students were asked to speculate on what it might have been like to be a doctor in that small frontier port in the first third of the 20th century.
'A town of between 100 and 150 persons, white and coloured, who congregated in Derby during the wet, when all things in the Kimberleys [ sic ] shelter and wait'3 and 'active work practically ceases'.4
I undertook to test their hypotheses by finding out more about that pioneering doctor now in his lonely grave.
Dr Hodge was the resident medical officer in Derby from early 1920 to late 1934. He died in the Derby Hospital on 20 November 1934. The West Australian newspaper reported:
'Magistrates tragic end. Poison mistaken for wine.
Derby, November 20 – Dr. William Theodore Hodge, Resident Magistrate at Derby, died at 7 o'clock this morning in extremely tragic circumstances. Prior to retiring last night, Dr Hodge intended taking a glass of wine, but accidently poured out and drank a small quantity of sheep dip. Although treatment was administered under his own instructions, his condition gradually became worse until death intervened this morning. The event has cast a gloom over the town, where Dr Hodge was highly popular and respected.'5
Dr Hodge was to hand over his duties to his successor the next morning. He was looking forward to retirement on his farm at Waroona, 100 km south of Perth. A coroner's inquest was held with the finding of accidental death by poisoning.6 Old farmers tell me that the most commonly used sheep dip was Cooper's Arsenic Dip7 and that it was highly toxic8 and often used 'off label' to kill ants and other such household pests which were, and still are, major pests for Kimberley householders.9
The question of how sheep dip came to be kept in the wine cabinet is speculative. The most likely explanation is that the Hodges' house keeper, who was illiterate, inadvertently replaced a port bottle with one of similar appearance but which contained sheep dip.10
Dr Lawson Holman, who was district medical officer (DMO) in Derby from 1956 to 1970, lived in Dr Hodge's former home and surgery. He fostered the rumour that Dr Hodge's ghost often returned to his old consulting room for a sip of Johnny Walker whiskey.11
When I began my enquiries in Derby this was the only remaining local memory of Dr Hodge that I could find.
William Theodore Hodge was born in England in the village of Middleton, Warwickshire on 12 September 1859. His father was an Anglican clergyman who had ten children with his first wife and four with his second wife. William Theodore was the last born child.12
He was educated at Denstone College, an independent Anglican school, where he took out the mathematics prize and, in his last year, was school captain.13 He was a freshman at Keble College, Oxford University but stayed for only one term.14 Apparently, the money set aside for his theological education was diverted to bail a cousin out of his gambling debts.15 Hodge then changed to medical training at Guy's Hospital.16 He was the first in his family to enter the medical profession – at that time it had a lower social status than Holy Orders, the law, or the army.17 During his school and hospital days he excelled at cricket, rugby, and boxing.18
Dr Hodge was admitted to Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1884. Two years later he became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries of London.19 He then travelled to British Guiana (now Guyana), where he worked as a doctor for a gold mining company.20 This led him to pursue a Diploma of Public Health (1889) from the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.21 He was thus triply qualified as a surgeon/apothecary and public health physician.
The modern Australian equivalent is a rural procedural general practitioner who is also the district medical officer of health.
Between 1890 and 1895, he twice returned to British Guiana.22 There he developed a lifelong affection for and skill in handling mules. He later brought mules from the Kimberley, for his grandchildren to ride to school in Waroona.23 During long periods of leave in England he undertook a series of locum tenens in Shropshire and Staffordshire.24
Migration to Australia
In the late 19th century it was commonplace for educated Europeans, Scotsmen, and Englishmen to seek better opportunities in developing countries. Although his mother was still alive, Dr Hodge's father had died in 1885 and he had no matrimonial ties.25 He already had experience of overseas work and travel. All these factors would have influenced his decision to migrate, and where better than Western Australia, which was then in the news because of the discovery of gold.26
Dr Hodge travelled first class from London on the SS Orient, a four masted, two funnelled passenger ship, which at 5500 tonnes was one of the biggest passenger ships of its time.27 He arrived at Albany on 28 August 189628 then travelled by rail to Perth and wasted no time in obtaining medical registration. On 2 September 1896 he became the 127th doctor on the register established under the Medical Act of 1894.29
Dr Hodge was the first doctor to practise in Claremont.30 His house and practice was on Perth Road – sometimes known as Perth-Fremantle Road or Claremont Avenue, and in 1932, renamed Stirling Highway. It was across the road from the current Claremont General Practice.31 At the time he began his practice in Claremont there were 76 houses or businesses. Five years later, the 1901 census recorded 428 buildings and 2014 people.32 Claremont was strategically situated midway between Perth and Fremantle and, although still semirural, was rapidly becoming an upper middleclass municipality.33 Dr Hodge remained there until 1904.34
Dr Hodge's workload in Claremont was prodigious and the growing demands of a 24 hour, 7 days a week, home delivery obstetric service probably influenced his decision to move to an easier practice35 and to enter into the farming partnership of Hodge and Webster, graziers, at Westfield in the Cranbrook District.36 His partner was unable to contribute capital to their joint venture and in 1910 walked off the property leaving Dr Hodge in financial difficulty. Rather than declare bankruptcy he went back to fulltime government salaried medical practice in the then flourishing Pilbara port of Roebourne.37
The following year, 1912, he was attracted to Kellerberrin, the then largest town on the Eastern Goldfields railway line. The population of the town was 600, with a surrounding population of 1400. At that time it was customary for a roads board to offer financial incentives to attract doctors, but in times of drought, their ability to honour their commitment was often compromised.38 Dr Hodge was the first western trained doctor to practise in the Kellerberrin district. He had a house in Massingham Street that also doubled as a cottage hospital where he could accommodate short stay patients.39 Distance was the main impediment to obtaining medical help and contributed to many premature deaths. One method of transport for people who lived near the railway line was to get a ride in the goods train that went from Merriden to Kellerberrin early in the morning. In dire emergency, the doctor would also use the train if it was running in the needed direction.40 Dr Hodge owned one of the first cars (possibly the first one) in that district. Although the 'roads were so rough that a drive almost jostles the life out of a strong man, let alone a delicate (about to give birth) woman,'41 he made house calls sometimes over distances of 80 miles for which he charged 1s 5 1/2d per mile and 16s 8d for the consultation.42 Dr Hodge assisted the ratepayers of Kellerberrin in petitioning the colonial secretary for a hospital – however he had been long gone before it took in its first patients in 1921.43
During most of Dr Hodge's time in Kellerberrin, the district was beset with drought. The wheat growing industry collapsed leading to widespread financial hardship.44 Dr Hodge provided medical services but was rarely paid for them, which eventually led him to seek out a more commercially viable situation in a salaried position.45 So in 1917 Dr Hodge moved to Norseman and in 1918 to Westonia,46 both mining towns.
The pioneer cemeteries in these towns are testimony to the large numbers of premature deaths from mining accidents, epidemics of typhoid fever, and in 1919 to the Spanish influenza. In 1919, Dr Hodge worked in The Avenue at Midland and then did a locum in Moora for Dr William Myles, who had still to be demobilised from the Australian Infantry Forces.47
It has been my experience, as a participant observer, that many dedicated doctors are much better at managing the medical side of their business than they are at managing the money side. Dr Hodge was such a doctor – in fact, his family regarded him as commercially naïve.48
After the end of World War I there was a worldwide recession Dr Hodge was nearly 60 years old and three of his five children were still financially dependent upon him. Also, he and his wife were committed to providing tertiary education for their daughters.
Given all of this it comes as no surprise to learn that in 1920 Dr Hodge joined the Government Medical Service where a salaried position of 500 pounds a year would have been an attractive proposition. Dr Hodge was positioned in Derby, then the administrative centre of the Kimberley, where his competency and confidence for remote medical practice was put to good use.49 His medical duties included services to the general hospital, the native hospital and the segregation hospital (for venereal diseases), and the lazaret (hospital for contagious diseases – then in the grounds of the native hospital).50 A dilapidated old building,51 the lazaret sometimes housed up to 90 patients, many with leprosy.
Leprosy had been introduced into the north of Australia by indentured Chinese and Malay labourers.52 The first recorded case of leprosy in an indigenous Western Australian was in 1908. Like tuberculosis, it spread rapidly in a population with no previous contact with mycobacteria. By 1966 the northern part of Australia had the highest prevalence of leprosy in the world.53 Leprosy was known to the Aboriginal people as the 'Big Sick' –the actively virulent form of leprosy that, alas, has with other diseases brought a heavy death toll amongst all the tribes.54 Dr Hodge, who would have been knowledgeable about leprosy from his time in British Guiana, travelled throughout the West Kimberley inspecting Aboriginal people for signs of leprosy.55 Those so diagnosed were brought into Derby by the police and housed in the lazaret prior to being transferred to the Channel Island Leprosarium near Darwin.
Dr. Hodge had a pragmatically relaxed attitude to the management of the Aboriginal people in the lazaret. He allowed them to go fishing and visit relatives in the other hospitals.
'The natives are easily content with food, housing and a little company, but if these were lacking he would go in search of them and it would be difficult to get the native to return to the hospital. If a native is unhappy he will abscond. It is far better to gratify his wishes with precaution than to deny them without a possibility of enforcing the edict'.56
The segregation hospital was for patients with venereal diseases, but it also housed some patients with leprosy. It seems to have been a better place than the lazaret:
'A number of district residents paid a surprise visit to the Derby Segregation Hospital, and by the courtesy of Dr Hodge, were shown over the hospital and leper quarters. The visitors were agreeably impressed at the large, airy rooms and the extreme cleanliness of everything. The patients appeared quite cheerful, and expressed their entire satisfaction at the treatment they receive from the DMO (Dr Hodge), and the hospital attendants'.57
The discovery in 1933–4 of 60 new cases of leprosy in the western Kimberley area resulted in the state government agreeing to build a leprosarium in Derby.58 As the sole medical practitioner and DMO, Dr Hodge's reports would have been influential in such public health decisions.
Dr Hodge's other official government positions included coroner and quarantine officer. When a ship came in he would walk down the long Derby jetty and embark and disembark each ship before it was left high and dry on the mudflats when the 11m tide went out.59 He was also resident magistrate (RM), and protector of the Aboriginal people. These latter two positions must have presented Dr Hodge with a constant conflict of interest, especially when he pronounced the death sentence on 'Sandy', an Aboriginal man whom a jury had found guilty of murdering another Aboriginal person60 – a difficult task despite the knowledge that it was unlikely Sandy would be hung, given that no Aboriginal person had been hung in Western Australia since May 1900.61
Dr Hodge also took on many roles outside of his duty statement, including occasions when he was called upon to chair contentious public meetings and to make speeches at farewell functions for long serving government employees.62 There is also a newspaper report of his efforts as a volunteer firefighter when he helped save the hospital and the courthouse.63
In Derby, Dr Hodge witnessed the arrival of Australia's first scheduled air service flight. It was made by Western Australian Airways Ltd. and preceded the first Qantas flight by 11 months.64 The three seater biplane piloted by Norman Brearley and Charles Kingsford Smith left Geraldton on 5 December 1921 and arrived in Derby 2.5 days later. Charles Kingsford Smith wrote that 'the well heeled people of Derby could now get to Perth in as little as 3 days'.65 Dr Hodge would also have been present at the beginning of the Australian Aerial Medical Service in 1934.66
Not having the use of an aircraft, Dr Hodge undertook some heroic house calls on roads which were little more than bush tracks.67 One such journey of over 400 km was reported in the local press:
On Tuesday, the 13th, Dr WT Hodge received an urgent call to Jubilee Station (Jubilee Downs Station) to attend to Mr WA Smith (Curly), who was in a bad way. Driven by Bob Murrie, the doctor set out on his long, and as it transpired, fruitless journey. The patient passed away before the doctor arrived. Deceased is an old Kimberley identity, and was well known right up the river for his ability as a kangarooer.68
Dr Hodge met Dora Webber Sadleir when she was working as a governess in Claremont. They were married in Melbourne in 1900. She was 19 years his junior.69 She was the 11th of 12 children from the union of John and Isabella Sadleir. John Sadleir was a career policeman and, as superintendent of the Upper Goulburn District, took command of the siege and capture of Ned Kelly and his gang at Glenrowan. He was an educated man and keen historian.70 This must have been one of the factors that encouraged Dora to become one of the earliest women graduates from the University of Melbourne.71 She died in Perth in 1952. Dora and her husband were good partners and friends, and she addressed him as 'Theodore'.72 They had five children, who all worshipped their father and held him in awe73 : Theodore Heathcote (Hec) Hodge (1902–1982); Katharine (Kitty) Isobel Roff (1904–1985); Robert John Vere Hodge (1906–1986); Helen Vere Pearson (1908–2003); and Hugh Peter Vere Hodge (1912–1985).74
Mrs Hodge lived in Derby only during the cooler dry months,75 a common practice at the time. In January 1924 a local newspaper correspondent wrote:
Derby is almost empty, everyone who could get away having gone south to escape the hot weather… An attempt was made to have a cricket match on Boxing Day. But the players preferred to sit in the coolest spots, close to long and cool shandies, rather than chase a ball in the sun; small blame to them'.76
When in Derby, Dora played her part and organised social evenings when 'all the youthful section of the community rolled up in their best mood and frocks – at 10.00 pm the youths gave over possession of the dance floor to the adults'.77
Remote general practice
When Lawson Holman took up the position of DMO in Derby in 1956, the memory of Dr Hodge and his exploits were still part of the 'Derby Yarning'. Dr Holman commented:
"If things were difficult in my time they must have been intolerable in his (Dr Hodge's), but he was a practical and innovative man who could use whatever was available to make do and get the job done".78
Among Dr Hodge's 'practical and innovative' skill set was his special reputation as a bonesetter.79 He was an early advocate of the, then controversial, Böhler method of using plaster of Paris casts to enable ambulatory treatment of fractures of the lower limbs.80 Patients with fractures and other sicknesses were brought into Derby slung in hammocks under bullock carts. No doubt that gave them some protection from the elements and some small insulation from the bumps of the road, but river crossings and bullock flatulence may have been another matter.81
In the absence of a resident dentist, and with the nearest pharmacist 200 km away in Broome,82 Dr Hodge also had to take on these roles. As the first port of call for those suffering with toothache, he was adept at cocaine nerve blocks for the removal of decayed and abscessed molars.83 Dr Hodge's wry sense of humour included using his tooth extracting instruments to play games on apprehensive patient-friends who visited him with a dental abscess.84 Acting as a pharmacist, Dr Hodge made up and dispensed his own medicines. He made up the medicines in his kitchen and was meticulous about the correct weighing of his basic ingredients, whether this was done himself or by an assistant.85 He also experimented with intradermal injections of the oil of the Indian grown chaulmoogra nut which, in the early 20th century, was touted as a breakthrough cure for leprosy.86
Dr Hodge was a free spirit and was either eccentric or enjoyed cultivating a reputation for being eccentric.87 The renowned and prolific chronicler of Australian outback life from 1927– 1969, Ion Llewellyn Idriess, spent 'the wet' of 1934 in Derby.88 He had many a chat with 'the old doc' and devotes four pages to him in his book, One Wet Season. He provides a pen picture of a likeable, pipe smoking eccentric not prone to uttering profanities but when provoked could 'swear like a trooper'.89
'Doc Hodge had four pets. A parrot, a cat, a dog and an ''inseparable' brolga. He was also a golf addict and lacking access to a golf course used the streets of Derby and the dried out mud flats around the town.
The Doc took every advantage of dry weather to swing his beloved golf-sticks, never lacking an appreciative audience… As the Doc clipped the ball the parrot would whistle shrilly and the brolga would leap into the air, with a flapping of wings and trumpet calls.
The Doc had made his golf-bag from the leg of a pair of khaki pants, a meat-tin sewn in the bottom. He couldn't stand the fal-lals of a regulation golf-bag, besides which it would be too heavy to carry. For the same reason he had his riding saddle made of a small, light strip of sheet iron, then covered the seat with a patch of sheepskin. Thus the saddle was comfortable and easy to lift on and off the nag. He reckoned that the stirrup-irons were too heavy and too cold for his feet, so he made them of wood painted black, a strip of light hoop-iron tacked around each to strengthen them. The Doc reckoned that life was made to take things easy, with as little waste of exertion as possible. His cheery nature and weird inventions certainly helped a lot. A great old character, the Doc, a good cheerful, convivial soul; we've browsed over a pipe or two in his quaint little surgery. I used to wonder what a city doctor would think of that surgery.'90
By current standards, Dr Hodge was lacking in anthropological and public health understanding when, puffing away on a pipe or cigarette, he lined up Aboriginal men and women for a mass screening looking for leprosy, skin, and venereal disease.91 But such practices were still commonplace in the Australian Army in 1954 when I was a national serviceman. Also, his private medical practice was not a lot different. 'He consulted on the open veranda of his house, patients sat on benches… and if it was a simple matter… they received advice in public. But if the matter was "confidential" … the patient went into the "private" consulting room, which cost a little more.'92
Nevertheless, all of these stories would no doubt have contributed to the 'Derby Yarnings' about 'old Dr Hodge' which were still circulating up to 1970.93
Dr Hodge's eccentricities also extended to his dress. His most common apparel was very 'colonial' and consisted of spats and a pith helmet, a cork insulated, light weight head cover, ideal for protection from the heat and sun of northern Western Australia.94 A Hodge family story is about the time that 'Theodore' needed a new safari suit and sought out the sole resident tailor Wing Hing Wah.95 But the only cloth he had available was for making butchers' aprons. So Dr Hodge finished up with a blue and white striped safari suit.96
Although he wore many hats in addition to his pith helmet, and had many responsibilities, the small and seasonally fluctuating population base of Derby left some time for fishing off the jetty.97 Fresh fish would have been a welcome supplement to his staple diet of boiled wheat. His youngest daughter, Helen, would visit during her holidays and her cooking was always welcome. She reported that butter arrived in cans, but lacking any form of refrigeration, was always molten.98
Local legend and 1920s exemplar
The most authoritative text on the early doctors who practised in Western Australia was written by Dr Bertie Cohen, a past president of the Royal Historical Society of Western Australia.99 Inexplicably, Dr Hodge is not mentioned in it, but his story is certainly reflected in those of the many other doctors whom Cohen writes about. This book contains a chapter on doctors who practised in the areas where gold was discovered and another chapter on those doctors who practised in the agricultural districts. Of those contemporaneous with WT Hodge, most were likely to have received their qualifications in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dublin, or from one of the London medical schools. Some of them had outstanding undergraduate academic careers. They were all round GPs expected to deal with the diverse problems that presented to them, and in the many settlements and shanty towns which sprung up around newly discovered gold deposits, they had to deal with recurrent epidemics of typhoid and diphtheria. In such situations they often worked to the point of exhaustion.100
In general, they were an adventurous and entrepreneurial lot. In addition to carrying out their roles as medical practitioners, some were amateur anthropologists, resident magistrates, or justices of the peace. Being amongst the few with a tertiary education, these doctors usually accepted leadership roles in their various communities. This usually involved chairing committees to lobby for better roads and a hospital in their area. Those doctors who worked in the goldfields were often involved in prospecting and exploring. Those from the agricultural areas often had a financial interest in a farm or orchard and owned and bred racehorses. These rural and remote medical practitioners were invariably among the first residents in their district to own a motor vehicle. Many practised to a ripe old age and managed to keep up with advances in medical practice.
One 1956–1970 Kimberley medical legend wrote of a preceding 1920–1934 medical legend; 'He [Dr Hodge] lives forever in the hearts of the people of the Kimberley'.101 But, nothing is forever. On my visits to Derby in 2008 and 2009, I found only one old man who had ever heard of him. In Claremont there is no trace.
Dr Hodge was competent, highly regarded by his patients, and a local entity. He was a Western Australian medical pioneer. He was the first doctor to practise in the now upper-middle-class suburb of Claremont , the first doctor to practise in the Wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin, and he is one of the 'once in a generation' medical legends of the Kimberley. His story is illustrative of the life and medical practice of a pioneering doctor in metropolitan, rural, and remote practice in Western Australia at the end of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century. His story deserves to be better known and having been, for 30 years, a GP in the practice that he founded, it has been my pleasure to write it.
First Published by Max Kamien in 'Health and History': the Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine, Volume 12. Number 1. 2010 pp 105-123.
I would like to acknowledge the ready assistance of Steve Howell of the Battye Library; Suzie Shannon, then librarian at the Derby Library, who found the local newspaper references about Dr Hodge; Eva Paull of the Shire of Derby/West Kimberley; and Jenny Kloss of the Derby Visitor Centre. I am indebted to the grandsons of William Theodore Hodge: Christopher and Philip Roff, and Robert, Christopher, and especially Jack Hodge FRACS, who readily provided much valuable information and photographs. And a special thank you to Charmaine Robson for information on Dr Hodge's leprosy surveys, to Fiona Mackenzie for help beyond the call of duty in editing this article, and to Roger Bee, Murray Fisher, Terry Spence, Ross Walmsley, Gail Wickham, Garry Burgoyne, Frank Wood, and Win Halliday who graciously responded to my request for information in the 'Can You Help' section of the West Australian, 29 December 2008.
The views expressed by the authors of these articles are their own and not necessarily those of the publisher or the editorial staff and must not be quoted as such. Every care is taken to reproduce articles accurately, but the publisher accepts no responsibility for errors, omissions or inaccuracies contained therein or for the consequences of any action taken by any person as a result of anything contained in this publication.