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Wyalong and West Wyalong Medical Practices, New South Wales

A rich history

Gold was first discovered in the Wyalong area by the Neeld brothers in 1893. The following year, in March, Wyalong was registered as a gold field with the mining warden at Temora, a town some 40 miles to the south.

By May 1894, the newly gazetted town of Wyalong had its first doctors, with Dr Dowe and Dr A Grieves setting up practice. That same month, 600 people attended a meeting called by the Wyalong Progress Association, where it was unanimously decided that a hospital should be established without delay. Until then, the care of sick people had depended on the generosity of the area's women, who provided nursing care.

In September 1894, a hospital tent with fittings for five patients was sent by the Board of Health. Dr Grieves was appointed government medical officer, and a matron and nurses were hired. In November and December, typhoid fever reached epidemic proportion; by December, four tents were in use. That same month, work began on an eight bed hospital about three miles east of the main mining camp at West Wyalong (this was also east of Wyalong). Opened in April 1895, the hospital was situated on a hill overlooking the town. In 1901 the hospital was extended by the addition of a new wing and nurses quarters. (The hospital and its extension were built out of weatherboard, the nurses quarters with brick.) Dr Grieves was succeeded by Dr Willis, who proceeded to build a house and surgery in Gilbert St with a dispensary attached.

Dr EA Woodward, who had been in practice in the town, took over from Dr Dowe in 1902 and practised from the same surgery in Slee St. In 1904 he sold his practice to Dr FCS Shaw, intending to travel overseas and then buy a practice closer to the city. Dr Shaw, meanwhile, expanded his practice nearer to the goldfields and rented additional consulting rooms at the Duncan Chemist at West Wyalong. He continued to practise in Slee St until 1905, when he bought the Gilbert St house and surgery from Dr Willis. He also built Maville Private Hospital in Conway St behind his house to provide midwifery services.

Dr Shaw was in solo practice until, in 1914, he was joined by Dr SP Lyttle, who became his junior partner. Soon after, Dr Lyttle enlisted in World War 1 and was wounded. He returned to West Wyalong in 1917 and took up practice in 33 Court St. Dr Shaw built a branch surgery in Church St, West Wyalong, close to Dr Lyttle's house. Around this time, a number of private hospitals were established in West Wyalong, each of which seemed to flourish as ‘lying in' hospitals, as the public hospital did not cater for maternity cases. Home delivery by a midwife was a common option at the time.

In 1921 Dr Lyttle sold his practice to Dr EF Fisher. Under the arrangement, Dr Shaw owned two-thirds of the practice and Dr Fisher one-third. Dr Shaw was the town's government medical officer and the mayor of Wyalong Municipality for 23 years. Dr Fisher practised from 33 Court St until he moved to a new house and surgery at 46 Court St in 1927. Initially he rode a bicycle to do his house calls and hospital visits. If he was called out of town, he would hire a car. Sometimes patients would come and fetch him if they needed him urgently. In 1922 he eventually bought a car, a Citroen. In West Wyalong, another practice, run by a Dr JJ Moloney, was set up in Grenfell St.

Artesian water had always been a problem in the area's mine shafts and required constant pumping to keep it under control. The mines closed around 1921 due to flooding, which had become impossible to check due to the number of mines being abandoned. The close of the mines changed the area's demography. The government gazetted town, Wyalong, which depended on the government and the law enforcement administration of the goldfield, was gradually abandoned. The volunteer fire brigade was kept busy as fires broke out each night at each end of the town, usually simultaneously. Wyalong struggled. But it still had the public hospital. (I had my tonsils and adenoids removed there by my father, Dr EF Fisher, under anaesthetic given by Dr Shaw in 1930.)

In 1933 Dr Shaw became depressed and spent a whole year in hospital away from his practice. Dr PL Daniel set up practice in West Wyalong , moving from nearby Ungarie. When Dr Shaw came back, his practice had disintegrated. He died suddenly in 1934. Part of Maville Private Hospital was burnt down the same year. Doctor Shaw's death left Wyalong with no doctor resident. All doctors from then on resided in West Wyalong.

West Wyalong , meanwhile, flourished. More geared to serving the local industries and farmers than Wyalong, it became a centre for the area's commercial activity. The area's shire, the Bland Shire, based itself in West Wyalong . It began producing utilities such as electricity. The main banks were all situated in West Wyalong , as were the hotels. In 1934 Bland Shire took advantage of the cheap money that had become available after the depression to have water and electricity relayed from Burrinjuck Dam. West Wyalong now had an adequate water supply, which it used to sewer the town, build a swimming pool and improve town amenities. There was soon great pressure to move the Wyalong and District Hospital closer to West Wyalong , where most of the area's people lived.

It was now 40 years since gold had been discovered. A week of celebration followed, during which the foundation stone of the new hospital in Hospital Rd, West Wyalong, was laid. In September 1934 the new hospital was officially opened. Dr J Balzer was appointed medical superintendent. He had been in general practice in Tallimba, a village near West Wyalong , before going overseas to gain his FRCS. This was his first appointment since returning from overseas. Dr J Moloney died and his practice was bought by Dr LA Gardiner, who set up a surgery in Church St.

There were a number of private hospitals still in existence - Thelma for midwifery services and Lentara and Dalkeith for general nursing and midwifery services. In 1935-36 Dr EF Fisher built his own private hospital - Strathmore in Maitland St .

Around 1938 Dr Balzer bought Dr Daniel's practice, after which Dr Daniel moved to Sydney . Dr Balzer enlisted in the army in 1940, which left West Wyalong with only two doctors - Dr EF Fisher and Dr LA Gardiner - for the duration of the war. The two doctors managed to provide a continuous medical service during that time, providing each other with anaesthetic and other support services.

In 1942-43 a local garage proprietor saw the need for an ambulance. Taking it upon himself, he converted a panel van into an ambulance capable of taking four stretchers; he also equipped and maintained it. It was driven by wardsmen from the hospital.

After the war Dr Gardiner was worn out by the constant work. He was joined in his practice by Dr D Bracken. He soon sold his practice to Dr PP Manzie. Then when Dr Bracken left about 1948, he sold his share to Dr J Martin. Surgery had always been performed in West Wyalong, but with Dr Balzer and then Drs Manzie and Martin they now had doctors who had been trained with higher surgical skills. The practice expanded, taking in Dr K Falk.

In 1948 the Bland Shire took over the management and funding of the ambulance. It appointed an ambulance superintendent who, with the assistance of volunteers, provided a full time service, which was free to residents of the shire. In 1951, an ambulance station was built. On the ground floor were the two ambulances, and on the first floor the superintendent.

When Dr J Martin left in 1953 to go to Wellington, Dr RL Garner bought his practice and Dr RD Cowdery replaced Dr Falk. They set up practice in Main St with Dr Manzie but later moved to a purpose built surgery in Water St. This practice set up a branch surgery in Weethalle with a bush nurse who visited twice a week. Dr Cowdery left the practice in 1956 to study surgery. Dr EF Fisher would call on this practice whenever he needed assistance.

The Wyalong and District Hospital was a 52 bed hospital, including eight midwifery beds; it offered medical, surgical, midwifery, pathology and radiological services.

In 1956 Drs Anne and Eric Fisher returned to West Wyalong and were taken into partnership by Eric's father, Dr EF Fisher. Dr Eric Fisher had been overseas for 5 and a half years getting surgical and medical training to prepare for isolated country practice. He had married his wife, Anne, a Barts ( London ) graduate, while overseas. They set up their house and surgery in the former Strathmore Private Hospital in 33 Maitland St . With the closure of the Strathmore hospital, there were no longer any private hospitals in West Wyalong . In April 1957 Dr EF Fisher died under anaesthetic in Sydney while having a carcinoma of the colon removed. Twenty years of ulcerative colitis had eventually caught up with him. With his death the surgery in 46 Court St closed.

At this time a pathology technician from Temora visited once a week and a radiographer from Forbes visited each Saturday. Towards the end of 1957 Dr PP Manzie sold his practice to Dr KJ Rew. In 1959 Dr RL Garner went to England to get further training in surgery, leaving his wife and children in West Wyalong . He returned at the end of 1960 to practise, having obtained his FRCS. In the meantime Dr KJ Rew went overseas to train in obstetrics and gynaecology. The two practices worked closely together to provide a good medical service to the town and district with a wide range of surgical, orthopaedic and obstetric services. Wagga had not yet developed into a major referral centre and there was a gravel road system in the process of being upgraded. There were plenty of road accidents, which often meant taking blood for transfusion and doing our own cross-matching. A full time radiographer was appointed to the hospital in 1960; at the same time, the pathology technician extended their service to twice a week and did most of the testing on the spot. In 1961 the Fishers opened a branch practice in Tallimba, which had just lost its bush nurse. At this time, Dr GJ Hiatt spent 6 months with the Fishers as an assistant before travelling overseas.

In 1962, with a growing family, Dr RL Garner moved to Bathurst to be closer to the schools there. He leased his practice to Dr D McDonald. Ralph Garner operated on both our sons ­ one in West Wyalong before he left and the other in Bathurst. Dr Garner could not get someone to run his practice, leaving Drs Anne and Eric Fisher on their own in 1963. The Fishers subsequently offered to buy the practice, an offer Dr Garner accepted - to both parties' mutual relief. Dr JB Ward came into partnership to run the practice and to service the Weethalle branch practice. In 1964 Dr CC Fisher came into the partnership as well. At that time Dr P Dawson of Temora, who ran a branch practice in Barmedman, decided to move to Sydney. An offer to buy this practice was accepted.

The West Wyalong practice was now servicing three branch practices - Tallimba, Weethalle and Barmedman. The early 1960s saw a steady expansion of the area's network of tar roads. By 1965, gravel main roads had become a distant memory. At the same time Wagga grew to offer greatly expanded referral services, helping to remove some of the feeling of medical isolation. Doctors were now able to offer referral services much closer to home, which patients took advantage of. The first obstetric consultant arrived about 1962, and the first orthopaedic consultant a couple of years later. In 1967 the air ambulance service was inaugurated, offering rapid transport to Sydney (1 hour compared to 6-8 hours by road). Now major surgery and medical emergencies could easily be transferred. The Wyalong and District Hospital , meanwhile, now over 30 years old, was in need of modernising to make it more work friendly. Numerous representations, however, were to no avail.

In 1968 Dr CC Fisher went to Sydney for further training in obstetrics. As was the usual practice, holidays had to be covered by locums - if they could be obtained. In 1969 the practice began hosting yearly medical student attachments, which were arranged through the Royal North Shore Hospital . Then, in 1970, Dr JB Ward departed for his home town of Cootamundra after being offered a partnership there. (His family had trotters there, which was an added attraction.) With his departure the Water St surgery was closed and the Maitland St Surgery expanded to accommodate all the doctors' needs. At times Drs Anne and Eric Fisher were left to look after a shire population base of about 8000 people. They were given some respite by senior residents at Wagga Base Hospital , who provided weekend locum relief about once a month. Dr M Nicholson came as an assistant for 6 months in 1969; he then moved on to Condobolin where a second doctor was needed. In 1971 Dr CM Lilienthal came as an assistant. The first trainee from the Hornsby Training Scheme, Dr T Harpur, was assigned in 1973.

In 1974 Drs Anne and Eric Fisher left for Sydney to be nearer their children, who were all in boarding school there. Dr CM Lilienthal agreed to take over the practice. In 1975 he was joined by Dr P Rikard-Bell in 1975 and Dr ED Glover, who had married and taken up residence in the town. Medibank was introduced in July 1975, which made hospital practice in the country more rewarding. More doctors became willing to undertake country practice. Medical students were assigned each year by the NSW Faculty Student attachment scheme. In 1976 the practice became an accredited training practice for the Family Medicine Program. Thereafter it had a steady stream of trainees passing through, completing their 3 month terms.

Dr P Purches joined the practice around 1977. The next year, the long awaited extension to the hospital finally began, with the erection of an acute 32 bed annex. The erection of the annex allowed the old building to be renovated with a dedicated emergency department, provision for aged care nursing home accommodation, a renovated operating theatre and treatment rooms and a physiotherapy department. Obstetrics were catered for in the new annex. Construction was completed in 1979.

Dr CM Lilienthal left the practice in 1980 to take up a position with the Medical Defence Union. Dr G Fitzgerald joined the practice in his place. Not long after, the community rallied and began to raise funds for a retirement village in West Wyalong. With these funds and generous donations from the Federal Government, the Bland Shire Council and the Freemasons Benevolent Institution, the plan was approved. Work on the Waratah Retirement Village, which was to include 31 hostels, commenced in January 1981. The first residents moved into the units in January 1982. It was soon realised that extra care and dementia units were needed.

Dr P Purches left the practice in 1984 for Wagga, where he planned to pursue his interest in acupuncture. Wagga also offered better opportunities for his daughter to advance her musical career. Dr J Pearson took his place in 1985. Dr P Rikard-Bell left the practice at the end of 1986 to go back to Crookwell. In the next few years the practice was stable and trained a large number of FMP trainees. Dr P Purches, G Fitzgerald and J Pearson had already been trainees in the practice before returning as partners. During this period control of the ambulance was transferred from the Bland Shire to the Ambulance Service of NSW.

In 1984 a public meeting was held to discuss extra care (nursing home) units for the Waratah Village. Planning for the units, which involved identifying the residents' specific needs, was undertaken; this, together with the tendering and fundraising processes, took some time. Construction began in 1986. Twelve months later, in March 1987, 15 extra care and dementia units were officially opened.

Dr G Fitzgerald left to pursue an interest in aged care in 1992. He was appointed Regional Director of Aged Care in 1994. The following year Dr J Pearson moved to a bigger centre where specialist medical services were more readily available for his daughter. This left Dr H Rikard-Bell and Dr ED Glover to continue caring for the community. With only two doctors available, the branch surgeries could no longer be serviced and had to be closed. Dr Rikard-Bell sold the Strathmore surgery to the Bland Shire Council in 1995. At the end of 1995 he left to practise in Bathurst. Dr N Wearne and Dr ED Glover carried on.

After the Bland Shire Council advertised widely offering an inducement of $50 000 to general practitioners to set up practice in West Wyalong, Dr F McGee and Dr F John set up practice in early 1996. They practised from the surgery in Maitland St (Strathmore), which had been known for some time as the West Wyalong Medical Centre.

A new hospital with 26 beds was built on Ungarie Rd, adjacent to the Waratah Village. It opened in November 1999. The new hospital included an emergency department, an obstetric unit and an operating theatre (which, unfortunately, have hardly been used) as well as a radiology department. There was no physiotherapy department. The delineated privileges to the new hospital were severely restricted. Almost all obstetric patients had to be taken to larger centres such as Temora, Wagga or Griffith. Similarly, all but minor surgery had to be transferred.

Dr F McGee set up his own surgery in 2000 in Main St , taking with him the West Wyalong Medical Centre name. Dr R Basoum became an assistant. Dr F Johns, ED Glover and N Wearne, who had returned, continued in the Strathmore Medical Centre. Dr R Basoum left to set up his own practice in Junee. Dr ED Glover retired in 2002 and Dr N Wearne left to provide locum services in areas of need. Their places were filled by Dr W Ogundare. Dr F John retired in 2007.

West Wyalong is now served by Dr F McGee, with his assistant Dr N Bashir, and Dr W Ogundare. All three doctors are international medical graduates. Temporary assistants are employed when they can be obtained. On occasions when no doctors are available nursing staff and the flying doctor service provide emergency medical attention. In 2008 the Bland Shire Council resolved to make an annual contribution of $50 000 to be shared by both medical practices equally as a proactive measure to allow a full range of medical services to continue to be available within the town.

Eric Fisher

7 June 2009

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