Level : Advanced
Reading time : 3 mins
Were any of your ancestors patients in the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH)?
Hospital records are one of my favourite resources for family history research. Yet they are often overlooked by family historians despite few people avoiding the need for hospital treatment at some point in their life. So even if they didn't spend time in the RMH, it's always worth checking what records survive for hospitals in the areas where your ancestors lived.
When it opened its doors in 1848 with only 10 beds, the Royal Melbourne was Victoria's first general hospital. Located originally on the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets it was the only general hospital in Melbourne for 23 years. Out of necessity it quickly expanded its capacity and became a teaching hospital.
Patient medical records 1856-1910
The hospital's own archive holds patient medical records from 1856 -1910, although some records during this period are also stored at the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV). Thankfully, both the RMH and the Genealogical Society of Victoria (GSV) have indexes for the patient records up to 1910. Sadly, the indexes are not yet online and you will need to visit in person or arrange for someone to consult the indexes on your behalf.
Post-1910 medical records
But what of records after 1910? They are a different story and you will need to lodge a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the hospital. There is also a charge for each FOI request. Details are available online at https://www.thermh.org.au/patients-visitors/coming-hospital/medical-records.
My own experience of RMH records
Based on my own personal experience, it is essential to consult the indexes first to locate the series and file numbers for the ancestors' records you're seeking. Otherwise you will be looking for a needle in a haystack with each doctor having his own notebook for each ward he visited.
I knew my 3xgreat grandfather, George Wild, died at the RMH in 1867. I eventually tracked down his medical records at PROV after first visiting the GSV and finding his name in the alphabetic index.
At PROV I was able to hone in on the doctor's original notebooks which detailed George's diagnosis, prognosis and treatment for phthisis and neck cancer. While it made for sobering reading, it gave me remarkable insight into his medical history as well as his fight to conquer his final illness.
As a bonus I also found reference in the index to his son, George Jnr's medical record. He was admitted to the RMH with typhoid only three weeks after arriving in the colony with his father in 1860. He survived, and after more than two months in hospital, went on to live a long and prosperous life, but what an inauspicious start it was to his new life!
While it sounds a somewhat messy and time-consuming process, it is well worth the effort of tracking down your ancestor's records at the RMH. In return you will get a unique insight into your ancestor's life.
If you have any questions about Victorian hospital records, don't hesitate to ask me via the Comments section below.
Your Family Genealogist
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State Library of Victoria