An Australian Legend: Tom Wills and a tale of two doctors
This is a story about Tom Wills.
Tom Wills created the game of Australian Rules football and was our first great cricketer. His life, also, was a bridge between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. He died by suicide.
This is also a story about two doctors. Two doctors who, in very different ways, influenced the life of Tom Wills.
The first is John Macadam, the man who delivered the first-ever lecture at the Melbourne University Medical School; the second is Patrick Moloney, a medical student in that very first lecture.
Tom Wills was a man consumed by sport.
He was born in New South Wales in the year 1835, on a bleak landscape called Captains Flat near Canberra: the game of Australian Rules football was created by a New South Welshman. Never let a Melburnian tell you otherwise.
As a child le lived for a time in a tent with his mother and father in the Grampians, western Victoria, and befriended the local Djab wurrung Aborigines., Tom was a lone white boy growing up in the midst of black children.
When 14 years old Tom was despatched to Rugby School, England where, amongst the elms and soft fields of Rugby, he learned three things: how to play the school’s unique football, the craft of cricket and how to drink beer.
Returning to Melbourne at the end of 1856, Tom was a handsome man. When he paraded on the field, women admired and men envied his figure. Independent and a wanderer, he was soon playing cricket for clubs throughout the colony.
In 1858 he famously wrote to a newspaper proclaiming that these colonies should have a foot-ball club. The following year he sat in a pub and, with three other men, penned the first-known rules of Australian Rules football.
Wills was not content with an empty declaration and set out the key elements needed to start this game. His cousin later recalled:
But when T.W. Wills arrived from England, fresh from Rugby school, full of enthusiasm for all kinds of sport, he suggested that we should make a start with it. He very sensibly advised us… to work out a game of our own.
And so he did.
Most readers will, I dare say, claim no knowledge of Dr John Macadam. But everyone has heard of macadamia nuts. Yes, the nut is named after this very Dr Macadam.
A wonderful polymath in an era before specialisation robbed careers of variety, John Macadam was chemist, medical doctor and politician. He was born near Glashow and arrived in Melbourne in 1855. A string of accomplishments decorate his CV: member of the Victorian Parliament, honorary secretary of the Royal Society of Victoria, secretary of the Exploration Committee f the Burke and Wills expedition.
But it is for football that we now recall him. The first publicly recorded Australian football match took place between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar on the rolling paddocks next to the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1858.
Tom Wills was one umpire, John Macadam the other. What qualifications Macadam had for the post, other than being a chemistry master at Scotch College, we don’t know.
The game was chaotic:
The ball was frequently in the northwest corner of the park, and was at one time taken by a Grammar School player behind his own goal and right round the other side of the cricket-ground fence. This seemed, however, carrying the thing too far, and, on being appealed to, Mr Thomas Wills, who acted as umpire decided that the ball was out of bounds, and it was accordingly brought back.
Four years later, in 1862, the Melbourne University Medical School opened. Dr Macadam dispensed with his football attire and delivered the first lecture (chemistry) in the new medical school. Sitting in this first ever medical lecture was Patrick Moloney.
Death in Queensland
While Dr Macadam delivered his first lecture to the new medical students, Tom Wills found himself living in the Queensland outback. A handful of months earlier his father had been slaughtered in Queensland, by Aborigines, one of 19 white settlers killed, leaving an indelible stain upon Tom for whom nightmares thereafter dogged his sleep.
Despite his father’s murder, in late 1866, Tom Wills undertook to create an Aboriginal cricket team in western Victoria. He brought them to Melbourne playing on the MCG on Boxing Day 1866. Up to 10,000 people lined the streets and ground to watch them play. This team, minus Tom, later toured England as the first Australian cricket team.
Tom’s act in creating this team is one of the great moments of healing in Australian history but is sadly unknown by the majority of Australians.
Tom Wills, now drinking heavily, was always desperate for money. He lamented:
‘My boots are nearly off my feet & I should feel much obliged if you could forward me £2.’
The Melbourne Hospital and Dr Moloney
In the last decade of his life, his name no longer on centre stage, Tom Wills’ life descended into disarray and alcohol abuse.
In early 1880, by now an alcoholic, Tom stopped drinking suddenly, and developing Delirium Tremens (DTs), was admitted under Patrick Moloney to the Melbourne Hospital.
The Melbourne Hospital, the city’s oldest, stood like a medieval landmark on Lonsdale Street. Constructed of heavy stone, it was a tall, dark building, brooding over the daily life of Melbourne. Each of its three floors, lined by tall oblong windows like heavy eye sockets, peered out from the stone building onto the street below. It arose, grim, like an asylum.
The poor feared the Melbourne Hospital as a place where one went to die or be subjected to experiments for unproven medical treatments. Wards were a Spartan affair: wooden floors, a simple bedside table with a porcelain bowl and jug for the day’s ablutions. Vases of flowers – dim embers of hope – were dotted about to dispel the smell of incipient death.
Inside, the business of medicine was practised. In the centre of an operating theatre lay a table for a patient. The table was draped with a white sheet and on it rested a pillow at one end for the patient’s head. Perched over the table, was a set of semi-circular benches ascending like a terrace to the back of the room: rows of medical students were spectators to the craft of 19th century surgery.
James Barrett, still a medical student in 1880, recalled that wounds were largely treated without any regard for antisepsis:
Whilst a student I do not recollect a single abdominal perforating injury or operation would which did not end fatally… Surgeons kept operating coats of which they were proud, as they were a mass of blood stains. Gloves were unknown, and the instruments were often held in the mouth.
Patrick Moloney was Tom Wills’ doctor, one of the three students who commenced the inaugural medical course in 1862. As a student, Moloney found the operating theatre a repulsive place, physically overcome by the gruesome procedures, sometimes having to be taken there forcibly.
Moloney was probably the most interesting of all the doctors at the Melbourne Hospital but perhaps not the most assiduous in his craft. ‘Gentle and generous’ he was one of the first two graduates in 1867 from the new Melbourne University School of Medicine. A poet and non-conformist, Moloney counted Adam Lindsay Gordon and Marcus Clarke among his friends. Many years afterwards, medical students of the day recalled him as ‘tall, handsome…with a naughty twinkle in his eye’.
Tom Wills was admitted to Ward 21 under Moloney, and recorded as: ‘Patient admitted semi Delirium Tremens state tremulous movements of hands – was rather obstinate – refused to remain in hospital’.
The medical records detail, precisely, the treatment Wills received. Potassium Bromide to induce sleep, digitalis to soothe a violent heart and iron salts to improve nutrition. Moloney was noted as liberal in providing ‘medical comforts’ such as brandy, wine, whisky and champagne for ailing patients. Tom did not receive such ‘comforts’.
Death was not uncommon in DTs: exhaustion and dehydration could drain the mightiest of physiques.
When Tom was admitted his tremulous hands were the most conspicuous sign of the growing potency of his DTs. Quick to startle and quick to misjudge, dishevelled and wide-eyed, it would not be long until he started to mistake shadows as assassins.
Within hours of admission, Wills absconded from hospital. The following day, tormented by delusions and hallucinations, he took his life.
Tom Wills’ gravesite in Heidelberg lay untouched for 100 years: a patch of dirt, a raised mound with nothing to indicate the man beneath. In 1980, the Melbourne Cricket Club returned and upon this anonymous rise of soil righted the neglect of a century by erecting a headstone to its most famous son.
This is a reproduction of an article that appeared in CHIRON, the Melbourne Medical School’s annual magazine.
The author, Dr Greg de Moore (BSc(Med) 1979, MBBS 1982), is a consultant psychiatrist at Westmead Hospital, Sydney. He discovered the medical notes of Tom Wills at Royal Melbourne Hospital. The resultant biography of Tom Wills was short-listed for the National Biography Award. Greg spoke at the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival.