John Bell Hickson – Part 1

  • Abstract:

    Although we know very little about John Bell Hickson [1820 – 1873], he is usually given credit for being Victoria's first homœopath.

    Part 1 of this article presents the results of ten years of extensive research into Hickson's previously unknown background.

(Material researched & presented by Barbara Armstrong)


Known "facts"

Until now, Jacqueline Templeton's book about Melbourne's Homœopathic Hospital (which became Prince Henry's Hospital and then the Monash Medical Centre) has been our main source of information about John Bell Hickson. From her we learn that: Hickson had been practising homœopathy in Melbourne's suburbs since 1850; by 1870 he was described as having one of the largest medical practices in the colony; he was "author of several vigorous pamphlets vindicating homœopathy"; in 1870 he was charged with assuming the title of "doctor", as he was not registered as a medical practitioner in Victoria.


Surely we should know far more about this early pioneer. It is now more than 160 years since Hickson's arrival in Australia. After all this time, is it possible to discover more about him – his background and his contribution to the introduction of homœopathy to Australia? Was he really Victoria's first 'homœopathic practitioner'? [See below for definitions.]


After many years of detective work, piecing together small fragments of information from a variety of sources, the following picture is painted. It is a story of pioneering spirit, heartache, community involvement, thwarted goals, pride, as well as white lies and deception.


Before Australia

Although most people think that Hickson was an American, he was, in fact, born at Brigus, Newfoundland on Conception Bay (since 1949 a part of Canada, but until then, a colony of England). His father, Thomas, and his uncle, James, were both Wesleyan missionaries from England. Around 1815, they had been sent to Newfoundland to work with the local Methodist communities. In July 1819, the Newfoundlander Merchantile Journal announced that Rev. Thomas Hickson had married Miss Jane, second daughter of Mr William Garland of Lower Island Cove, Conception Bay. John Bell Hickson was born the following year, in 1820. It is probable that he was named after Rev. John Bell, a Methodist missionary who was also in Newfoundland in 1819. Sadly, Jane Hickson died aged 21 and was buried on 23rd September 1823. Her son ensured that she was remembered by giving her maiden name (Garland) to at least three of his children. Rev. Hickson married twice more, in England, and John Hickson gave his first stepmother's maiden name (Locket) to one of his daughters.


In 1824, John's father was appointed to determine the state of the Esquimaux (Eskimos) on the Labrador Coast, in order to establish a mission amongst them. He spent several weeks there and wrote a journal about his experiences.


The 1841 English census lists John Hickson as a chemist at Tunbridge Wells, at the same location as surgeon Dr Robert Duncan. Reportedly, Hickson was Duncan's medical assistant, and Duncan provided practical experience and training to his student. Hickson attended literary and scientific soirees in Cheltenham, then pursued his medical studies in Paris "under some of the most distinguished men in Europe" and attended the lectures of Mathieu Orfila, the toxicologist and chemist who has been credited with being the founder of the science of toxicology. Later reports, in 1870, state that he had studied medicine in Paris "there being no schools for the study of homœopathy at that time in England".


Melbourne arrival

J.B. Hickson travelled on the Santipore from London in 1850. Shipping records show that, following stopovers at Adelaide (7th June 1850) and Melbourne (26th June 1850), he continued on to Sydney, arriving there on 27th July 1850. The journey had been eventful, as two days after departing Adelaide, the ship had run aground at Lacepede Bay, where it remained for six days, abandoning the anchor, heavy casks and some other materials, until re-embarking. Several months later a note in a bottle was recovered, the passengers requesting that "whoever finds this will forward information to one of the ports".


Later it was reported that the owners of the Santipore "forced upon Dr Hickson the medical superintendence of the ship, owing to their want of confidence in the surgeon appointed; and there are person in the colony ready to testify to the important services rendered by him to the passengers during the voyage".


For some reason, Sydney did not meet Hickson's expectations, as some time between August and November of 1850, Hickson left Sydney and returned to Melbourne. There he advertised that he would provide a series of four lectures on 'phrenomnemotechny', a system of improving memory that had been promulgated by a professor from France in 1845. There was no review of the first lecture, nor any further advertisements for the later lectures, so the project may have failed through lack of interest.


Although Templeton states that Hickson practised in the suburbs of Melbourne from 1850, records show that he actually took up residence in Geelong.


Dates of voyages tell us when people travelled to Australia, but they don't tell us why they left well-established countries to travel to a place which, at that stage, was still very primitive and underdeveloped. Why did Hickson leave England and come to Australia? He left England prior to the announcement of the discovery of gold in Victoria, so he did not come here to seek his fortune in gold. Geelong was even smaller and less-developed than Sydney or Melbourne, so why did he choose to settle there? This move was probably because Hickson's future sister-in-law and her husband were already living in Geelong.


The Classical and Scientific Institution, Geelong

Hickson rented a house and property near the township of Geelong. The accommodation was sufficiently large that he was able to advertise it as a school that took boarders and day students. The property was at St Helen's, which is on Corio Bay, North Geelong. Today it is represented by a park and a jetty on the seashore, and a street called St Helen's Place. Hickson must have moved to Geelong almost immediately after his arrival in Melbourne, as by December 1850 he advertised his "Classical and Scientific Institution" in The Geelong Advertiser:


Dr Hickson, recently arrived from England and who has been engaged in preparing young men for the Universities, has opened an establishment for a limited number of gentlemen's sons, in which a system of education will be adopted calculated to meet, as far as possible, the intellectual requirements of the Colony, and to render it unnecessary for parents to send their sons to England.


The higher classes will, in Greek – read Homer Thucydides, Xenophon, Greek testament, etc. In Latin – Caesar, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Terence, etc. In Mathematics – Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, differential Calculus etc.


The modern languages will be taught colloquially. Hebrew will be taught if required.


A museum will be formed for the study of Chemistry, Galvanism, Electricity, Geology, Biology, Magnetism, Practical Mechanics, Outlines of Anatomy, with Animal and Vegetable Physiology.


The advertisement went on to explain the charges and the terms of payment for boarders and day students. Boarders were required to provide their own sheets, towels, and a silver dessertspoon and fork!


Six months later, he advertised another school, Chester House Boarding School, in Skene Street, Newtown.


Dr Hickson begs to inform the ladies and gentlemen of this district who wish to have their sons privately and carefully educated that, having chosen the above locality on account of its salubrity and commanding view of the Bay and surrounding country, he has erected spacious and lofty premises suited to the requirements of an institution of the abovementioned character. A sound commercial, mathematical or classical education is given, according to the wishes of the friends of the pupils. French and German taught colloquially.


Book-keeping is taught on a much improved system lately introduced into the best English schools. A large playground is furnished with gymnastic apparatus for the athletic exercise of the boys. Every boarder is requested to be provided with four sheets and four towels.


It is evident that this enterprise did not last long, however. This was one of several business ventures which failed. (By 1854 the Chester School had become a boarding and day school for young ladies, run by two ladies.)


It is obvious from the above that, in his youth, Hickson had received a strong classical education, and that he had an interest in all things scientific. His Institution was a precursor to private colleges for the sons of rich Australian pastoralists and professional men, such as the Geelong Grammar School. Hickson must have thought that this was a niche market in colonial Victoria, for which he had more than suitable qualifications, and from which he would be able to make a good living for himself and any future family.


Hickson was listed in the Geelong Commercial Directory and Almanac as J.B. Hickson, MD, St. Helen's. He was very attached to his title as Doctor, and to the use of the initials 'MD' in all correspondence, although it appears that, despite his medical training, he did not have a formal medical qualification.



On 29 September 1852, Hickson married Isabel Mary Scott (also known as Mary Isabel Scott) at Christ Church in Geelong. John was aged 32. Isabel was approximately 20, and had also been born in Newfoundland, at St John's, where her father was Sheriff and Spanish Consul. 'B. Scott, wife and family' were also listed as arriving on the Santipore from England in 1850. This was probably Isobel's father, Benjamin, and his family.



The first child born to the Hicksons was Warwick Garland Hickson, born 22 July 1853. Sadly, the child died 88 days later, the death certificate stating 'inflammation of the throat'. Hickson's uncle, James, who had left the ministry and emigrated to Australia, witnessed the certificate. (James became an auctioneer, land and commission agent, establishing a large "Auction Mart" in Great Ryrie Street West.)


The Hicksons were to have six children, only three surviving past the age of six. This low survival rate for children was common in this period.


A change in direction

Hickson continued to advertise his school at St Helen's throughout 1853. The business appears to have failed, however. The 1854 Geelong Commercial Directory indicates that Dr Hickson was no longer at St Helen's, but at a new address near Geelong, off Melbourne Road near Cowie's Creek. He was also listed at Latrobe Terrace in Geelong.


At some stage during 1854, Hickson changed career and established a business as a chemist and druggist in Great Ryrie Street in Geelong. This business was short-lived, as in November 1854 there was an item in The Argus reporting his insolvency. He stated that the causes of his insolvency arose from "heavy rents, and his drugs, potions and stock-in-trade having been swept away by that august body, the Corporation of Geelong, for taxes unpaid to them." He stated that he could have got on well enough, "if they had but left him alone". When the case was finally settled, it was determined that he was allowed to keep his furniture.


Hickson had already changed careers, however. The Geelong Advertiser of September 30th 1854 contained a notice announcing Dr Hickson as Homœopathic Practitioner, address at the Headland's Buildings, Elizabeth Street in Geelong, and at Latrobe Terrace.


The first edition of The Age newspaper, on 17th October 1854, contained an advertisement from "M.D. of Geelong", wanting to buy homœopathic medicines. I now believe that there is sufficient evidence to consider that the mysterious, unnamed M.D. was John Bell Hickson. We know that he had recently set up practice as a homœopath. We also know that he regularly used these initials in advertising and correspondence. For example, an 1861 letter to the editor of The Age, although anonymous, contained sufficient identifying information to indicate that the author was Hickson. In it he stated that he had signed the letter M.D. "as I am in the habit of doing".


Daughter Josephine Mary was born in Geelong in late 1854 or early 1855, although there is no official record of the birth to confirm the exact date. Josephine was one of the three children (all female) who survived to adulthood.


Melbourne practices and more sadness

By February 1855, Hickson and his family had moved to Melbourne. His advertisement ran:


Dr Hickson, having during a residence of several years in this colony observed minutely the peculiarities of the diseases so fatal to children, and the dangerous character of the Dysentery and Cholerine, which attack persons of all ages, can confidently assert, from experience, the readiness with which these diseases yield to homœopathic medicines.


He was at Punt Road, Prahran, and helped run a homœopathic dispensary at 130 Little Bourke Street East in collaboration with fellow homœopath, Frenchman Dr Bérigny, who had also just arrived in Australia. Consultations could be provided in English, German, French and Spanish.


These were the first of many residences and consultation rooms used by Hickson in Melbourne and its suburbs. So far twenty moves have been identified for the total of the 13 years that he lived in Melbourne (excluding a period in the Ballarat/Bendigo area). Changes in business location were common for many people at this time, when Melbourne was expanding after the gold rush; land was being cleared, and new residences were being built or old ones upgraded. There remains the suspicion, however, that Hickson and his family may have been one step ahead of the rent collector.


The Hickson's second son, Frank Warwick Hickson, was born on 14th January 1857. Sadly, he died a year later, in 1858, and was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.


First Publications

In 1856 Hickson wrote a pamphlet advocating homœopathy, titled "Medical Reform: Homœopathy Vindicated as a Necessary and Scientific Reform." It is likely that this was Australia's second publication on the topic of homœopathy, following Dr Bérigny's publication the year before.


Using the words of allopaths themselves who complained about the imprecise and defective nature of their method of medical treatment, Hickson pointed out the benefits of the homœopathic system and "the consequent necessity for general and radical reform". He went on to explain the principles of homœopathy, including the need to study and understand the effect of one medicine at a time rather than the "glaring difficulties" resulting from "the utter impossibility of determining what can possibly be the combinations undergone in the stomach by the mixture of several medicines in one prescription".


He had a warning for the amateur – the home prescriber and the part-time dispenser of advice and medicines. While non-professional people could be successful in common acute cases, chronic diseases especially "should not be attempted by any whose time is divided by other pursuits, as it requires positive extensive medical information, as well as tact, judgment, and penetration to treat them with durable success." "The study of the homœopathic Materia medica is a daily labor, and one which will continue to the last hour of a physician's practice."


I should warn the amateur, that, unless his whole time can be devoted to the subject, in connection with general medical philosophy, he need not expect to be rewarded by success, but must often produce a complication which will baffle the efforts of the most experienced.


Like others of his time, Hickson rejected the accusation that the infinitesimal dose is a necessary element in the homœopathic law. "The doctrine of homœopathy, 'similars cured by similars,' has nothing whatever to do with the quantity of the dose; the amount of medicine is merely a matter of experience, for a practitioner may be a homœopathist without using the infinitesimal dose."


In 1860, Hickson's article on "The Law of Cure" was published in the British Journal of Homœopathy. The editors included a comment that his views were "not so original as he seems to think". As justification for including Hickson's article, the editors stated: "We believe that advantage may occasionally be derived from knowing the views entertained of our doctrines by intelligent non-medical men."


In 1862 Dr Bérigny described Hickson as one of the five unqualified practitioners in Victoria, who had "received a medical education", and that he was "a gentleman of literary attainments, and author of several valuable medical contributions."


Melbourne activities

Hickson became well-known in Melbourne, not only via his medical work, but also via his wide-ranging involvement with the community.


In April 1858, he complained about the "wholesale slaughter of goats daily going on in the FitzRoy Park". In March 1859, he was appointed to a committee to form a gymnasium, the "Olympian Institute of Victoria". He moved the resolution that the Institute should be established "for the purpose of promoting the regular study and practise of bodily exercises on the best terms known and under the best direction that can be obtained."


On 15 April 1859, he attended the meeting which first proposed the establishment of the Melbourne Homœopathic Dispensary, along with other notable Melbourne personalities. At the meeting he admitted that he did not have a medical diploma, but was "well-known notwithstanding". He was appointed to the committee to help establish the dispensary. (This project was abandoned at that time, through lack of a fully qualified homœopathic practitioner to provide the services.)


In June 1859, he gave a lecture advocating the benefits of secular education, followed by a series of lectures on "Man and his Physician". Also in 1859, he was listed as a member of the Philosophical Society of Victoria, an organisation established to cater for the needs of educated and cultured men who wanted to extend their knowledge, particularly in the area of natural sciences. He was still a member the following year when its name was changed to the Royal Society of Victoria.


In 1860, he lectured at the Victorian Phonetic Society on phonography (shorthand) as an aid to the medical profession. In this capacity he would have known Australia's first female homœopathic doctor, Dr Harriet Clisby, and it is likely that he provided her initial medical training while she was in Melbourne.


In the same year, he was appointed Captain of the Fitzroy Rifle Company, and delivered a series of lectures for the newly-formed Fitzroy Volunteer Rifle Company, on the Lancaster rifle and how to use it.


Hickson became concerned about Melbourne's unhygienic streets, and in April 1870 gave a lecture on "Noxious trades and sewerage and deodorisation" at the Mechanics Institute in Melbourne.

Hickson also advocated the medical benefits of bathing, in the sea where appropriate, or in fresh water.


Changing times, changing laws

By 1860, Hickson's residence and consulting rooms were located in Collins Street East, the area recognised as being 'the heart of the registered doctors' domain'.


For many years there had been calls from the medical profession in Victoria for a Medical Act to be introduced which would exclude people who did not have 'acceptable' qualifications, and which would prevent non-registered practitioners using the title 'Doctor'. While the stated aim was to help protect the public, its passage would also help protect the incomes of the registered practitioners, as the unregistered practitioners represented a major competitive threat.


Hickson took a great interest in the published discussions re the proposed new Medical Bill. In one letter to the editor of The Argus, he pointed out that, by giving the allopathic Medical Board the power to determine which medical diplomas were required in order to practise in Victoria, the Board could refuse to grant such permission to homœopaths, as allopathic colleges refused to admit those who wished to study homœopathy. Without the required diploma, homœopaths could not gain registration. According to Hickson, the Board could state that "Our colleges will not grant you diplomas, nevertheless, you must show them! No university will admit you on account of your heresy, but it is imperative on you to produce these said diplomas before we can or will recognise you!" Hickson declared that this reasoning was absurd. "It indicates that they wish to cripple the progress of homœopathy, by preventing any accession to its ranks, save by secession from their own parchment-decorated institution."


To resolve this situation, Hickson proposed that a Board, constituted of homœopaths, should be established, with authority over its own sphere, enjoying equal powers over that section of the profession. He concluded: "The three homœopathic practitioners of this place have all of them had a medical education, and are not one whit inferior to those who persecute them."


During 1861 and 1862, correspondence in the newspapers regarding the terms of a proposed new medical act was heated on both sides. One of the anonymous letters, possibly from Hickson, objected to the Act on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The Act was passed in 1862.


The story of Hickson's life and his contribution to history is continued in the next article.

 John Bell Hickson - Part 2


Some Definitions:

Homœopathic practitioner – a person, whether a registered medical practitioner or not, who has a practice as a homœopath, providing advice and medicines to patients in a business capacity.

Lay prescriber – a person who provides advice and medicines to friends and relatives, but usually has another occupation and does not have a business practice as a homœopath.

Home prescriber – a person who provides advice and medicines to immediate family only.



©   Barbara Armstrong