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Our History

150 years of caring in every sense, 1863 to 2013
  • The hospital in the 1860s

    Australia's first specialist eye and ear hospital


    In 1863, at the end of the gold rush, Irish doctor Andrew Sexton Gray opened an infirmary for diseases of the eye and ear in East Melbourne. Overwhelmed by the number of poor people seeking eye and ear treatment but unable to pay, he wanted to help. With his guidance and dedication, the one bed infirmary quickly expanded to become the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

  • The hospital in the 1870s

    Serving the Victorian community


    Dr Gray merged his infirmary with a similar institution, set up by Dr Aubrey Bowen, to form the Melbourne Institution for Diseases of the Eye and Ear. With three surgeons, a new matron, ten inpatient beds and three outpatient clinics, the hospital was in strong demand. As the search for a permanent site intensified it was re-named The Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital to better reflect its service the entire Victorian community.

  • Artists drawing of the hospital in the 1880s

    Settling into a permanent home


    In 1880, the hospital proudly announced that it had treated 265,000 outpatients and 2,015 inpatients in its first 14 years. After prolonged negotiations, the Government granted a site to the hospital on Victoria Parade and the first permanent hospital was completed in 1883. The Eye and Ear employed several nurses and trained medical students but entered a new era in 1886 when the first paid surgeon was appointed, Dr Augustus Leo Kenny.

  • Photo of hospital staff

    A period of expansion


    Melbourne’s population had doubled since 1858 leading to a steadily increasing demand for the hospital’s services. A spectacular economic crash in 1891 could have spelt trouble for the Eye and Ear with its dependence on charitable donations. However, in 1893 Dr Aubrey Bowen died after more than 20 years of dedicated service, leaving a large bequest to the hospital, which was used to fund an expansion.

  • Photo of hospital staff

    Improving patient care


    In 1901, the average length of a patient’s stay at the Eye and Ear was 22 days for men and 26 days for women. Patient care continued to improve in the 1900s due to better infection control, improved surgical techniques and new treatments. However, to generate funds during the difficult economic times of this decade, visitors were charged 6d to see patients.

  • A hospital ward

    A World At War


    In 1914, a year after it reached its 50th anniversary, the Eye and Ear was overshadowed by the start of World War I. Ten beds were committed to returning soldiers with eye and ear complaints but many senior medical staff volunteered for military duty, leaving the hospital short staffed. This meant that several female doctors, previously unable to progress their careers in a male-dominated profession, were appointed as medical officers at the Eye and Ear.

  • The nursesí quarters

    Life improves for nurses


    A rapidly expanding population in the 1920s saw a large growth in patient numbers. A great deal was expected from the hospital’s nurses who worked 60 hours a week. However, conditions improved in 1929 with the purchase of Dodgshun House in Fitzroy for use as nurse quarters and a reduction of the working week to 48 hours. Despite these changes there was no increase in staff so the hospital began to seek help from volunteers.

  • Hospital staff

    Era of the Great Depression


    Widespread unemployment as a result of the Great Depression meant that less people were working in hazardous jobs and patient numbers fell. The hospital had to cut staff and the new Orthoptic Department was temporarily closed. However, Auxiliaries set up by volunteers raised funds to pay for new equipment and provide Matron Jones with money to supply needy patients with extra food.

  • Patients in waiting room

    World War II


    During World War II the hospital once again left beds open for the war wounded, and, in 1944 it became a training centre for medical personnel from the armed forces who required specialist training. One of these trainees, Captain Ronald Lowe took up a post at the Eye and Ear after the war and later to became director of the hospital’s first Glaucoma Research Unit and, in 1973, Emeritus Ophthalmic Surgeon.

  • Young boy having his hearing tested

    Postwar Melbourne


    The 1950s saw the development of the Eye and Ear as a research facility; coordinating and expanding on the research individual staff members had undertaken for many years. This came to fruition in 1957 when firstly, the Lions International Research Unit and then the Deafness Investigation and Research Unit were opened. A new library and several pieces of vital equipment were funded by the recently started Auxiliaries, which were run by volunteers.

  • People at Centenary Public Appeal

    Teaching, healing, research


    By the mid 1960s, inpatient numbers had grown to 4000 per year and 30,000 outpatients were seen annually.
    In 1961, a Royal charter was obtained and the hospital’s name was changed to The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and a new coat of arms was granted, inscribed with the motto ‘Teaching Healing Research’. Its research role was cemented in the 1960s with the establishment of the University of Melbourne departments of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology at the hospital.

  • A young patient at the hospital

    World's first bionic ear


    The opening of a new, 150 bed wing in 1974 and continuing investment in research set the scene for an amazing invention by Eye and Ear specialist, Professor Graeme Clark. After a decade of work towards the development of an electronic, implantable hearing device that bypassed damaged parts of the ear, Professor Clark carried out the world’s first Cochlear implant at the hospital in 1978.

  • Staff taking a tour of the tunnel

    Expansion and development


    In 1983, a tunnel running under Victoria Parade to link the hospital with St Vincent’s Hospital was officially opened so that patients needing eye and ear consultations from St Vincent’s could be transported with ease. Expansion of the hospital was also given a boost with the donation of $1.4 million by the Smorgon Family, which funded the building of a new wing, opened by the Minister for Health in 1987.

  • Doctors operating on a patient

    Research milestones


    By the 1990s about 18 profoundly deaf patients were receiving cochlear implants each year and a new research consortium, the Hearing CRC was set up to conduct ear, speech and hearing research. In 1991, the Lions Eye Bank was officially opened to improve corneal transplant outcomes, and in 1996, Professor Hugh Taylor established the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), to research the leading causes of blindness in collaboration with the Eye and Ear.

  • Patients at the hospital

    Improving patient care


    At the turn of the new millennium, the focus at the Eye and Ear was on service improvement. In 2009, the hospital’s new Fast-track Cataract Clinic received a Silver Award in the Improving Access - Providing Timely and Accessible Health Services category at the Victorian Public Healthcare Awards. Several milestones were reached throughout the hospital, including the first paediatric, auditory brain stem implant to be carried out in the Southern Hemisphere.

  • Doctors and nurses operating on a patient

    Preparing for the next 150 years


    The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital has become a world leader in specialist eye and ear care, research and teaching. In 2012, the hospital treated 192,000 outpatients; carried out 14,500 operations, including the first pre-Bionic Eye implant; and helped 45,000 in its Emergency Department. A redevelopment of the hospital will provide the hospital with a larger capacity and purpose built areas to facilitate today’s fast and technologically advanced methods of treatment.

Timeline of history from 1863 to 2012