Heidelberg Military Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne

Response

Hospitals are a critical component of any war effort, providing acute care as well as ongoing treatment and support for the physically and psychologically injured. They also provide an insight into the true horrors of war, laying plain the incredible suffering and sacrifice of service men and women returning from conflict.

A colour photograph of a brick path leading to a three storey brick building. There is a manicured lawn and garden on either side of the path. Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. Source: Susan Gordon Brown for the Sites of Significance program.

During World War I, Prime Minister WM “Billy” Hughes made a promise to Australia’s service personnel that, “When you come back we will look after you”. The result was the ambitious Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act 1917. Repatriation was an attempt to address the complex and varied needs of returned service personnel by providing war pensions, healthcare, education and training, employment, housing, soldier settlement, and remembrance and commemoration. The Heidelberg Military Hospital: The Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital serves as an example of the healthcare provided to those impacted by conflict both during and after World War II.

A black and white photograph of a group of uniformed men disembarking from a train. Many of the men are carrying rucksacks. Wounded Australians from northern battle areas arriving at Heidelberg Station, 11 November 1943. Source: State Library of Victoria.

The 115th (Heidelberg) Military Hospital was built on a site of over 50 acres for the Army and opened in March 1941. Rather than erecting a temporary military hospital, it was decided that a greater investment would be made in a permanent building to serve as a repatriation facility following the war’s end. Architects Leighton Irwin & Co, who specialised in hospital design, were commissioned to undertake the project, which was designed in a functionalist Modernist style.

A black and white photograph of a four storey public building. Two women walk along the footpath in front of the building and the left hand section of the photograph has been damage. The Acute Block, Heidelberg Military Hospital, designed by Leighton Irwin & Co. Source. State Library of Victoria.

The high demand for treatment of those returning from the conflict meant that an interim pavilion hospital was also erected on site while the permanent brick building was constructed. Once completed, both the interim and permanent hospitals included operating theatres, kitchens, living quarters, wards, and a mortuary. By 1942, the campus was expanded to also include two lodger units, the No. 2 Facio-Maxillary and Plastic Surgery Unit, and the No. 6 RAAF Hospital.

A black and white photograph of a model of a large building complex. Model of the layout of the 115th (Heidelberg) Military Hospital, 1943. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The role of the campus was to provide acute medical care for both men and women enlisted in war service. Here patients were treated for serious injuries, disease, and infections, as well as the emotional and psychological impact of war. Heidelberg served as a training hospital, and its care and management of war injuries and trauma was recognised to be among the most advanced in the country.

However, this was not the image of the hospital that was conveyed to the general public. The realities of armed combat were often deliberately concealed from the public eye so as to not deter volunteer recruitment. As a result, the early work on penicillin and plastic surgery undertaken at the hospital received little coverage, and the projected image of the patient population was often that of men who needed a short recovery before rejoining their units.

A black and white photograph of a man in uniform holding a folder with a series of men’s headshots visible. In front of him are shelves with various prosthetic hands and faces. The plastics section at No. 115 Australian General Hospital, Heidelberg. Source: Australian War Memorial. A pencil drawing with muted colours depicts an anxious looking man who is wide eyed. Psycho, Heidelberg Military Hospital, by Albert Tucker. Source: Australian War Memorial, © Albert & Barbara Tucker Foundation. Courtesy of Smith & Singer Fine Art.

The true physical and emotional toll of the war was captured by official war artist, Albert Tucker. Tucker worked in the Australian Army Medical Corps following conscription in 1942 and was stationed at Heidelberg to draw patients, often suffering from wounds including burns, for medical records. Tucker was primarily a figurative painter, and his work frequently reflected his critical perception of society. As a result, the work he produced at Heidelberg was often dark, ominous, and unsettling, reflecting the significant suffering he witnessed there. His experience at Heidelberg would have a profound impact on his artistic style, as he went on to become a leading contributor in the development of Modernism in Melbourne and one of Australia’s foremost artists.

The staff at Heidelberg changed constantly during the war, but there was always a core of staff in the wards that had experienced front line action in World War II. In May 1947, the hospital was handed over to the Repatriation Commission to create the Repatriation General Hospital Heidelberg. The hospital would provide medical treatment for eligible ex-service men and women, and if space allowed, their families. A large portion of the staff that joined the new hospital had served in medical and combat units. The shared experience of war between staff and patients greatly contributed to the type of care that was provided at the hospital. In Proper Care, historian Gwyneed Hunter-Payne observes that “They knew about grief and loss which even now many have not verbalised to their families ...the staff and the patients at Heidelberg instinctively knew the ‘baggage’ each was carrying”. Sufficient ex-service nursing staff would continue to work in the hospital until the late 1970s, instilling a patient-focused ethos into those they trained.

A black and white photograph of multiple rows of uniformed women nurses stand in a courtyard of a multi storey building as a group of four women and a man in military uniform walk past. The words Heidelberg Military Hospital can be seen on the building’s wall. Her Excellency Lady (Zara) Gowrie, wife of the Governor General of Australia, inspecting a parade of members of the Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS) at the 115th Military Hospital during her farewell tour, 1944. Source: Australian War Memorial.

While the extent of Heidelberg’s high-quality management and care was significantly downplayed during the war, in the years that followed, it remained a space for ex-service men and women—both staff and patients—to rebuild their lives together. The Repatriation Commission operated the hospital until December 1994, prior to which the hospital was renamed the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. In April 1995, the hospital was amalgamated with the Austin Hospital and continues to be operated by Austin Health today.

Located on the lands of the Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) people.