Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot

The Remarkable Life of William Bland

"The Venerable Patriot of Australia"

That's how the Sydney Morning Herald described Dr William Bland in its report of the grand banquet held in Sydney in 1856 to celebrate the inauguration of responsible government in New South Wales. As a key figure for decades in the agitation for self-government for the colony, the 66-year-old had been chosen to preside at the feast. It was 'impossible to describe the warmth, the more than warmth of his reception among his fellow-colonists,' the Herald reported. 'There was "long and loud applause," but it was the applause of gratitude, respect, and love.'

Quite a turnaround for a man who had come to the colony in 1814 as a convict after fatally wounding a fellow naval officer in a duel. After a rocky start in Sydney, including a year in gaol for libelling Governor Macquarie, he won and maintained the community's regard - so much so that after his death in 1868 the eloquent William Bede Dalley felt moved to write of him:

atmotic ship

A philanthropist, whose genius, whose time, whose fortune were for 50 years the property of every wretch who had a bodily ailment, a mental sorrow, or an empty belly - a patriot who was fearless when all or nearly all were cowards, who was loud in speech for the right when the timid were dumb, who spoke and wrote, and acted, as no man in the country dared to speak, write, and act; who so lived that William Charles Wentworth begged the citizens of this city in accents broken by honourable emotion to sacrifice him in the dispensation of public honors, rather than forget his friend William Bland. This is the man upon whose silver head the blessings of thousands were rained every day that it was seen in the streets of our city for more than a generation ...

Bland was a man of many parts. His prominent role in the push for representative political institutions won him enemies as well as friends, and he never shrank from a fight. As a doctor, he was admired as much for his benevolence as for his skill. Believing in the power of education to produce a better society, he initiated the establishment of Sydney College, predecessor of Sydney Grammar School. As an inventor he designed surgical instruments, fire suppression apparatus and, most adventurously, an airship that he was confident would reduce the travelling time between Britain and the colony from two or three months to four or five days.

Reviewers have enjoyed the book. In the Sydney Alumni Magazine Colleen Cook wrote: 'So many early Australians fail to receive rightful recognition. Robert Lehane's meticulous research reveals a portrait of one such man. In doing so, he provides lively snapshots of the chaotic life of a fast-growing colony.' Katherine Fennelly in Health & History observed: 'the well-written prose and the humour with which Lehane presents his material make the book very enjoyable and easy to read.' She noted that it was 'beautifully illustrated with colour photographs and drawings'. The book brings 'engagingly to life' one of the more colourful characters of colonial New South Wales, Anthea Hyslop wrote in Historical Records of Australian Science. 'William Bland was indeed a remarkable figure, and his biographer does ample justice both to the man himself and to his context, in a highly readable work.'

Duelling Surgeon, Colonial Patriot can be obtained from the publisher, Australian Scholarly Publishing, or booksellers.