John Bell Hickson – Part 2

  • Abstract:

    John Bell Hickson [1820 – 1873], is usually given credit for being Victoria’s first homœopath. This article presents the results of ten years of extensive research into Hickson’s previously unknown background, and discusses the truth or otherwise of this assertion.

(Material researched & presented by Barbara Armstrong)


Known “facts” and a recap

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.


In Part 1 of this article, we learned that upon his arrival in Australia, Hickson started his own boarding school in Geelong, where he was both principal and teacher. When this failed, he commenced business as a chemist. However, through lack of funds to pay his expenses, he was declared insolvent. It was not until 1854 that he presented his card as a homœopathic practitioner. He subsequently moved to Melbourne where he practised, initially with fellow homœopath, Dr Bérigny who had recently arrived in Australia.


A move to the country

In 1861, Hickson moved to Ballarat, where he advertised himself as 'Homœopathic and Hydropathic practitioner. Advice gratis from 8 am to 9 pm'. Once there, he moved premises three times in the first year.


In Ballarat he threw himself into local activities. He provided lectures on various topics at the Mechanics' Institute, played cricket with one of the local clubs, and was one of the examiners at the Ballarat Collegiate School. He helped establish a gymnastics club, and became secretary of a Cooperative Sheep Farming Company.


Legal charges

During 1862 the Medical Practitioners' Act had been altered to make it illegal for unregistered practitioners to use the title 'doctor'. It didn’t take long before a 'regular' doctor in Ballarat (Dr William Macfarlane) brought a case against Hickson, in June 1863. Hickson was charged with acting as a legally qualified medical man, and having a sign over his door with the words 'Dr Hickson'. He also had a sign board in the hall of the Mechanics' Institute with 'Dr Hickson' on it, although his name did not appear in the medical register as issued by the Registrar General. Hickson acknowledged that he was not a legally qualified man, but stated that on no occasion had he called himself a doctor. Cheekily, he also said that the contracted ‘Dr’ would also stand for ‘debtor’ as well as doctor. The court gave him a small fine of one shilling and cautioned him as to his mode of procedure in future.


Hickson did not take the charge lying down. The Star newspaper in Ballarat reported the following:


Our advertising columns contain a challenge to arms between two local practitioners of the rival systems of homœopathy and allopathy. The duel proposed is as to the questions whether the former system be true in theory and efficient in practice. The place proposed is the Hall of the Mechanics' Institute, and the weapons, we presume, to be the recorded facts of both systems plus whatever of argument the skill of the fencers may bring to the contest. Whether the verbal battle is to come off or not appears to depend on the decision of the allopathist who is the challenged.


It appears that the proposed debate did not eventuate. Hickson also wrote a letter to the editor, headed 'The attitude of the 'allopathic' medical body towards the 'homœopathic'.' In it he decried the 'malice' of the prosecutor, and exposed the hostile treatment which homœopaths received at the hands of the medical profession, particularly in Great Britain. He specifically mentioned an instance where students at Guy's Hospital had pelted a homœopathic student with human flesh whenever he appeared in the dissecting room, so that it was impossible for him to pursue his studies. In another case, a medical student in his fourth year of study in Edinburgh was forced from his position as a 'dresser' under a famous surgeon when the professor discovered that the student was the son of a homœopathist. It was because of this type of treatment that in 1851 the Congress of Homœopathic Practitioners, held in London, established the Association for the Protection of Homœopathic Practitioners and Students. Dr Madden, who practised in Melbourne for a period, was one of the committee members.


Later reports state that at this time Hickson applied for registration as a medical practitioner, but was refused.


Continued practice

The court case did not prevent Hickson from continuing to practise.


Hickson, along with a person called Mr Mitchell, achieved some local attention for having, according to a patient's testimonial, discovered a treatment method which removed growths from the eye. According to the report, the 'most recommendatory feature' was that the operations being conducted without pain. The newspaper item stated: 'As diseases of the eye have been much neglected, and as little has yet been done by the faculty, it is gratifying to know that a medical man has discovered a method of dealing successfully with those terrible diseases that make life a blank.'


In August 1864 Hickson announced that he was about to leave the colony for Calcutta in India. Was he proposing to join Dr Bérigny 's practice in that city, or was he merely planning a brief visit? In preparation for the move, Hickson gave several farewell lectures on various topics, including a very popular talk on "protection versus free trade", putting forward his strong advocacy for the benefits of free trade and the problems with protectionism. By popular demand, he was asked to repeat this presentation.


To-date, however, I have found no record of Hickson having left Australia and travelled to Calcutta.


In 1865 his six year old daughter, Pauline Isabel, died of typhus fever, despite her treatment by fellow homœopath, Dr Spech. Her grave survives in Ballarat's old cemetery, although without a headstone.


According to Pauline's death certificate, Hickson was residing at Ballarat East, and his occupation was listed as ‘Editor’. A news item in The Argus indicates that at that time Hickson was the editor of the Ballarat Sun and Mining Journal. (Some later articles give him credit for founding the Ballarat Star, but they may have mistaken this newspaper for the Ballarat Sun which ran for a short period from 26 September 1864 - about the time he said he was leaving to go to Calcutta. Other articles state that for a period he was also editor of the Herald, although I have been unable to confirm this.)


Hickson's final child, Marcella, was born while they were in Ballarat, possibly in 1866.


By January 1867 the Hickson family had moved back to Melbourne, where Hickson became involved with discussions regarding the health of the city and the treatment of 'night soil'. A meeting was held regarding the success or otherwise of 'earth closets' versus the benefits of deodorization of sewerage, which a local company wished to trial in East Collingwood/Fitzroy. Hickson was elected to a committee to advance the effectiveness of the latter procedure, and as part of that committee he wrote to the Chief Secretary of New South Wales and to the Government of South Australia. He was also part of a deputation to the Chief Secretary of Melbourne.


A newspaper item in July 1867 mentions him as being a 'Parliamentary agent'.


During his time in Melbourne, Hickson advertised that he provided consultations as a homœopathic physician twice weekly in Williamstown. This was at the premises of Mr Hutton, whom Hickson had known many years ago during his time in Geelong. Hutton had been on the Board of Directors of a life assurance company of which Hickson's father-in-law, Benjamin Scott had been manager.


More charges

By December 1867 he had once again moved to the country, this time to Sandhurst (now called Bendigo). Hickson's name appeared in January 1868 in a coroner’s court case at Sandhurst. A child was being attended by a Dr Hoyle, who then discontinued his visits when he learned that a homœopath, Mr Hickson, was also visiting the house. Hickson stated that he did not consider that the child was really his patient, as he had been called in to attend to the other two children in the house and he had only prescribed for the child once. The father did not seek further medical advice, and the child died a number of days later. The coroner judged that 'the child’s death was caused, not by improper medical treatment, but because it had been left without any medical treatment at all'. The criticism could equally apply to Hickson and to Dr Hoyle, who had abandoned his patient because a homœopath was visiting the house.


During the coroner’s case, Hickson’s medical credentials were queried. He was reported as stating that 'I have been attending the medical schools of France for twenty years [See Note below]. I have no English medical degree. You know that as a homœopathist I cannot have one. Your school does not recognise us, and we don’t recognise you.'


An item in The Argus of 29 July 1868 reported that John Bell Hickson, of Sandhurst, homœopathic practitioner, was a ‘new insolvent’, with liabilities of £123 13s and only £35 assets.


The above incidents indicate that Hickson was proud, unrepentant even when in the wrong, and a very poor businessman.


Having spent several years in the areas of Ballarat and Bendigo, and having once again been declared insolvent, Hickson and his family returned to Melbourne in 1868.


He will not drink wine  HicksonBook

In Melbourne, Hickson lectured on alcoholic drinks for the sick, from the point of view as a strong supporter of the temperance movement. During 1869 he published a medical temperance tract with the title He will not Drink Wine: Alcoholic Beverages Considered Socially and Physiologically. It was by 'J.B. Hickson, M.D. Hom. (of the Faculty of Homœopathic Physicians)'. Regarding this qualification, in 1869 Hickson was listed as a graduate of the Western Homœopathic Medical College which was based in Cleveland, Ohio, achieving his diploma via examinations (and possibly references regarding his previous training and experience), rather than by attendance.


In an advertisement within the publication, Dr Hickson (as he continued to call himself) stated that he was able to be consulted at his residence in South Yarra, where he provided 'special treatment for persons suffering from chronic alcoholism, so as not only to remove the physical effects of the use of alcoholic drinks, but also to conquer the appetite for such beverages'. The advertisement stated he would also accept resident patients – an arrangement which would have put considerable strain on his family.


More legal charges

In February 1870, Hickson was again charged with having taken the title of 'homœopathic physician and doctor of medicine'.


In support of Hickson’s case, his lawyer stated that Hickson had been in practice since 1850 (presumably the source of Templeton’s statements in her book), and because of this fact, ought to have been placed on the register. This was possibly because of a ‘grandfather clause’ in the Medical Act which should have entitled him to recognition. According to the lawyer, however, Hickson had not been able to place himself on the medical register, more from animosity against him than anything else. In 1863 (after the introduction of the 1862 Medical Act), Hickson had applied to have his name placed on the register, but had been refused; he again applied in August, 1869, and submitted his diploma issued from the University at Cleveland, Ohio, United States, which he had obtained in February that year. The reason given for the rejection of the second application was not that Mr Hickson was not a legally-qualified practitioner, but because he had obtained this diploma via written examination (which was the usual practice in America and Europe), rather than via personal attendance and an oral examination, the usual practice in England.


Because of the arguments presented, the lawyer considered that Mr Hickson should be placed on the register, and that a superior court should order the Medical Board to do so.


A more recent analysis of the case, in 1980, stated that 'He [Hickson] was more highly trained than those practitioners registered under the ‘grandfather’ clause of the Medical Act of 1862. These doctors had no medical qualifications but were registered because they had practised in Victoria since 1848.'


Although the Bench considered that case against Hickson was proved, the particular circumstances of the case were taken into consideration and he was only charged one shilling instead of the maximum sum of 50 pounds.


In 1872 Hickson failed in his third attempt to obtain registration.


Government appointment

Diphtheria had always been a major cause for the death of children. However, in January 1872 it was reported that in one family 6 out of 7 children had died and that the remaining child was in serious danger, and many other such deaths were noted. As a result, newspapers around Victoria urged the Government to take the matter seriously. In January 1872 the Victorian Government established a Royal Commission to try to determine the causes and treatment of diphtheria. The appointees to the Commission caused outrage in some quarters, however, as one of the doctors was homœopath Dr Günst. Most of the other appointees withdrew and it was not until almost a month later that the Commission was formed. In March 1872 John Bell Hickson was gazetted to be secretary to the Commission.



                            John Bell Hickson's grave site

                (Unmarked plot to the left of the collapsed slab)

                             Melbourne General Cemetery

                               Photograph:  Courtesy of Peter Torokfalvy

Final years

Hickson continued to write medical treatises. In late October 1872, Hickson placed an advertisement in The Argus, notifying people of a book he was about to publish, 'Diseases of Women and Children'.


By early 1873, however, Hickson’s health was failing, and he died of chronic cystitis and 'leucocythaemia' (leukaemia) at his home in Collins Street East on 14 August 1873. Homœopath Dr James Emery Gould signed his death certificate. Hickson was survived by his wife and his daughters Josephine (age 19), Florentine (age 11) and Marcella (age 6). He was buried in his second son's grave in Melbourne General Cemetery; his burial plot is now a grassed area without any headstone or marker, a poignant and sad sight.


Although Hickson had become a shareholder of the Warrandyte Sailor's Reef Gold Mining Company (registered on 21 March 1872), he did not die a wealthy man. Despite claims by Hickson’s lawyer that Hickson’s practice was highly successful, 'having one of the largest medical practices in the colony', an advertisement in The Argus soon after his death belies this statement. The advertisement requested that, because Dr Hickson’s family had been left 'in very straitened circumstances', several men in town would be glad to receive contributions on their behalf, to help support the family. Those happy to collect the contributions were homœopaths Drs Günst and Gould, and two 'regular' doctors, one of them being Dr Frederick Lloyd, with whom Hickson had worked on the Diphtheria Commission.



A medical scandalBeaneyCartoon-v2-s

Hickson’s influence on history did not end with his death. In 1875, a Melbourne medical journal published a series of editorials about 'A great author who plagarises other men’s works'. Dr Beaney was the ‘great author’ in question. He was a famous medical figure in Melbourne, a flamboyant and controversial surgeon and paediatrician, who had been credited with being the author of a number of medical texts. The authorship of four of these, however, was challenged by the journal’s editor, stating that one of the books was, in fact, a paraphrased translation of a homœopathic work by G.H.G. Jahr on venereal diseases.


The anonymous editor of the journal published the following statement, and although the names were suppressed at the time, it was clear to all that the writer was Hickson and the accused was Beaney.


I, _________ M.D., now on my sick bed and in danger, do solemnly and sincerely declare that I wrote all the books (naming four), bearing the name of ________. I declare that I wrote every line of original matter in them – including dedications and prefaces. I also declare that he instructed me to introduce false cases in them; of which the work on

_______ contains a great number, which were framed on models supplied to me by him from the European medical Journals.

I make this known on account of the scandalous treatment I have since received at his hands.

The above is true in all respects, So help me God.

Signature ____________ March 30th, 1873

Witness to Signature _________________


Later advertisements for the four books listed them under the heading of 'The Late Dr Hickson’s Compilations', and a cartoon was produced showing Beaney standing on a set of books labelled 'Hickson’s Works'. Hickson’s desperate financial situation was likely to have been the trigger for Hickson to accept payment for being a ‘ghost writer’, foregoing the credit for his labours.


It should be noted that, just a few months after Hickson had advertised the upcoming publication of his book on the diseases of women and children (in October 1872), in early December 1872 Dr Beaney advertised the publication of a similar book, ‘Children, their treatment in Health and Disease’. It appears that Beaney may have taken advantage of Hickson’s increasing ill-health and poor financial situation to claim authorship of the book written by Hickson. This was possibly the ‘scandalous treatment’ mentioned by Hickson in his statement of March 1873.


The book on the treatment of children has been credited with being the first paediatric textbook published either by an Australian doctor or in Australia. Some have disputed whether anyone other than Beaney had produced this text. However, my discovery of Hickson’s earlier advertisement for his own book (which was never published) provides reasons for further questioning. Perhaps at least some of the credit for the early paediatric text should have been given to Hickson.


Was Hickson Victoria’s first homœopathic practitioner?

As mentioned above, it appears that Hickson’s first occupation in Australia was not as a homœopathic practitioner, but as a school principal and teacher. He may have used homœopathy with his family and students as a lay practitioner or home prescriber, but this cannot be confirmed. Contrary to established belief, it appears that he did not begin a formal homœopathic practice from the time of his arrival in 1850.


An anonymous 1861 letter to the editor of The Age indicated that he had commenced practise seven years previously, in about 1854. This matches the time of the anonymous advertisement in The Age, and the time that he first advertised his services as a homœopath.



Intensive research has shown that much of what was previously reported about John Bell Hickson is historically incorrect. He was not American;  he did not commence business as a homœopath in Melbourne and its suburbs in 1850;  he did not have a highly lucrative practice, as he was declared insolvent more than once, and in the end his family had to rely on donations from the community in order to survive;  he was not Victoria’s first homœopathic practitioner, as he did not commence homœopathic practice until some time around 1854.


Hickson was, however, a strong defender of homœopathy, a published author on homœopathic topics, including one of the earliest Australian publications explaining homœopathy, and he was one of the early pioneers of the use of homœopathy in Australia. As such, his history deserves to be known by the current generation of Australia’s homœopaths.



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.


Hickson may have been misquoted. As he arrived in Australia in 1850 when he was around 30 years of age, 20 years’ study would have meant that he was around 10 years of age when he attended medical schools in France. Another interpretation of the twenty-year timeframe could be that, following his initial training, he had continued his homœopathic studies via correspondence. This would mean that he had commenced his homœopathic studies around 1848.


©   Barbara Armstrong