HistoryCity pioneer’s fearless, fabulous life

GRAND: Long demolished, Dr Bowker’s mansion (at top left about 1890) on The Hill. Aventine Apartments now occupy the site.DR Richard Bowker would be one of the most interesting and important Newcastle pioneers you’ve probably never heard of.That lack of recognition, however, may soon change with the release this month of a book covering a largely unknown part of the early life of this remarkable individual.

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Adventurous: Dr Richard Bowker in old age. Portrait by Val Anderson.

In his lifetime, Dr Bowker (1815-1903) was not only adored by his patients, he became a politician, patriarch, country squire and a strong voice for reform, agitating especially for major change in mental health treatment.In an era where the mentally ill would be treated like criminals before being escorted by police to an asylum, Bowker said he “burned with shame and indignation at this abominable ordeal”, branding the government as barbarous and tyrannical.

Born in Yorkshire, England, Bowker travelled widely after qualifying in medicine until he settled in Newcastle, where he was involved for more than 40 years as a doctor, coroner, government medical officer, magistrate, alderman and member of the NSW parliament.

A fearless advocate, he successfully pleaded with the NSW colonial government for a safer water supply for the people of Newcastle, according to his great-grandson Dr John Parkinson, a retired Newcastle psychiatrist, now living in Wollongong.Passionate about preventing disease, Dr Bowker lobbied for years until a new cemetery was set up at Sandgate. He was concerned that water seeping from the old graveyard above the city would polluteground water and drinking wells in Hunter Street.

Oh, and Dr Bowker pioneered cataract surgery in Sydney. In the last decades of his life he worked exclusively as an eye surgeon many years before specialist medical colleges were set up in Australia.

His full name was Dr Richard Ryther Steer Bowker, or RRS Bowker, and although always busy, he found time to marry, father 14 children and create a medical dynasty. Four of his sons followed him into medicine, one into dental surgery and one into veterinary science. Two daughters becamewives of judges.

Bowker’s great-grandson, John Parkinson, was so intrigued by his industrious ancestor that he has edited a 407-page book entitled The Surgeon’s Eye.The book presents the journals of a young Dr Richard Bowker and his adventures and seaboard observations as a ship’s surgeon and as a seaman on a 19th century whaler in the Pacific.Painstakingly transcribed by two cousins from longhand journals written at sea, a portion of it even had to be translated from a 19th century shorthand.

John Parkinson has a very valid reason why such shipboard journals are so relevant today, as they givean unadorned, first-hand glimpse into a brutal past.

“Medical practitioners have been prominent in Australian society since earliest European settlement – after all, they were among the few in the colonies who could read and write,” Parkinson writes in the book’s preface.

Parkinson reveals also that because Bowker led a delegation of crew concerned about their wages, his ancestor ended his 1841 whaling voyage clapped in irons. He was released only when his medical services were needed.

Dr Bowker had impulsively enlisted as a seaman on that whaling ship after landing in Sydney, but his medical skills were soon discovered and were often in demand during his 11-month voyage.

It was in far different circumstances that Dr RRS Bowker had earlier sailed as surgeon/superintendent with 200 immigrants from Liverpool, in England. He reached the newly founded Melbourne in 1840, before shifting to Sydney, a move “prompted by the open attentions of his landlady’s daughter”.

Bowker moved to Newcastle, but by mid-1845 he was back in England refreshing his medical knowledge. The doctor was then lured by the offer of a voyage to Calcutta, to ferry ‘coolies’ (virtually work slaves) across the Indian Ocean. Back in Sydney on August 1847, the restless doctor lost no time getting back to Newcastle and consolidating his sound medical reputation.

Dr Bowker freely helped the sick, regardless of reward, but this energetic medico later had a mansion on The Hill (on the site of the present Aventine development), owned much city property and had two ships working in the coal trade.In 1858, he married Lydia Phillips of ‘Bona Vista’, Paterson,neighbouring the mansion Tocal, now the name of the agricultural college.The Bowkers eventually boughtBona Vista from the Phillips family and bred racehorses.

Viewed from afar today, Dr Bowker appears to have been a man well ahead of his time. He died at Darling Point, Sydney, and is a buried in the family vault at Paterson.

The Surgeon’s Eye will be launched at Newcastle Museum on September 22at 6pm by Penny Cook, who starred in the long-running TV series, A Country Practice. She is also Dr Bowker’s great-great-grand daughter.

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