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Medicine chest

Faithfull family medicine chest

The Faithfull family medicine chest dates from the family's earliest settlement in Australia. It helps to tell a moving story about Dr Robert Faithfull's treatment of his younger brother, Reginald, who died of tuberculosis in 1882.

The chest is an English domestic model, typical of those made in large quantities from 1820 to about 1900. It is made of rosewood and mahogany and lined with velvet.

Zoom in for a detailed view of the Faithfull family's medicine chest, made about 1890.

Springfield-Faithfull family collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Mary Faithfull and her mother and sister, both named Ann Deane, were skilled in medicinal care. In a letter to his father, Mary's son Robert commented that it was a pity Ann was not a doctor, because he would trust her when he was sick more than many doctors he knew.

The women nurtured his interest in medicine and we can speculate that it was at Springfield that he was given guardianship of the medicine chest, known in the family as 'Uncle Robert's medicine chest'.

Some of the medicines could be used for minor complaints, such as mouth ulcers or coughs. Others were very much remedies of their time, used to induce vomiting, or purging of the bowels. The medicines were sourced from William Sloper, chemist, in Sydney.

Black and white photograph of Robert Lionel Faithfull
Robert Lionel Faithfull. National Museum of Australia.

Familial and female healthcare

Before the 19th century, responsibility for keeping the family healthy and for treating sickness usually fell to the mother. This familial and female model of healthcare changed, in the Faithfull family and in Australia generally, during the 19th century, when medical care was increasingly professionalised, and women were initially prevented from studying medicine at university.

Robert Faithfull: a doctor in the family

Robert Faithfull was born at Springfield in July 1853, the sixth child of William Pitt and Mary Faithfull. He attended Sydney Grammar School and studied at the Sydney Infirmary on Macquarie Street with Irish physician and surgeon Dr Andrew John Brady. In August 1876, Robert sailed on the SS City of Sydney to San Francisco via Auckland and Honolulu, then by train to New York. Robert attended lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Columbia College, later Columbia University. By December 1877 he reported that: 'People say here I am born to be a doctor'.

Robert graduated from Columbia College in April 1879. He travelled to England and passed the examination at the Royal College of Physicians, which was required for registration as a doctor in Australia. Robert practised in Sydney for more than 30 years.

Reginald Faithfull's decline

In 1880 Robert received worrying news from the family: his brother Reginald had developed tuberculosis. Late in the year he returned to Springfield to look after his brother, hoping that his qualifications and expertise would help Reginald to regain his health.

Letters and dairies from the Faithfull family papers at the National Library of Australia reveal Robert's care and treatment of Reginald. From 1881 the two brothers travelled between the family's properties at Springfield and Brewarranna, near Narrandera, hoping the change in climate would be beneficial to Reginald's health.

Robert's poignant and honest letters to family members documented Reginald's decline. Reginald died at Brewarranna on 9 June 1882, with all his brothers, except Percy, at his bedside. The brothers returned Reginald's remains to Springfield, where he was buried five days later.

For more information read 'Opening the medicine chest: a tale of two brothers' – an extensive essay by curator Pip McNaught on the Faithfull family medicine chest, with extracts from Faithfull family diaries and letters in the Museum's reCollections journal, vol. 6 no. 1, April 2011.

Medicine bottles
Paregoric elixer, compound chalk powder, grey powder and laudanum from the Faithfull family medicine chest. Springfield-Faithfull family collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Dean McNicoll.
A set of bottles from the Faithfull family collection medicine chest.
A tray from the Faithfull family's medicine chest, with bottles bearing the label of Sydney chemist William Sloper, and containing, (from left) grey powder, James' powder, Dover's powder, calomel and tartar emetic. The palette knife would have been used to extract powder from larger bottles. Springfield-Faithfull family collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Dean McNicoll.
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