Fremantle Hospital Exhibition: the weird and wonderful throughout the hospital’s history


Fremantle Hospital Exhibition curator and volunteer Ruth Letts with Lesley Gibbs. Picture: Matt Jelonek d452840
Fremantle Hospital Exhibition curator and volunteer Ruth Letts with Lesley Gibbs. Picture: Matt Jelonek d452840

A VIAL of unused war-era horse hair sutures.

A table scattered with hundreds of frightening metal instruments.

A large, dusty ledger containing hand-written details of more than 200 surgeries.

They are unusual and rare items that are among thousands of treasures tucked away in Fremantle Hospital’s old hyperbaric chamber, sucking all who step through the threshold into a different time.

The beautiful, technical and extraordinary pieces of the hospital’s history have been brought into one of its oldest buildings, reminiscing on the life of a public hospital that has played a major part in Fremantle’s history since it first opened in 1897.

Items like old administrative documents are expected, but there is also a touch of the unexpected, including a brick from Florence Nightingale’s house, a 1940s-era matron’s tea-set complete with an ashtray, an array of historical microscopes and a collection of nurses uniforms outlining the changing hospital fashion through the times.

The documents are also far from boring, with the collection including details of wage increases for nursing staff and old ledgers that outlined surgeries performed at the hospital, one of which shows the particulars of more than 200 surgeries performed in 1902, the procedures that were done – the vast majority using chloroform as an anaesthetic – and the outcome of the surgery.

Although not an original project, the collection is a labour of love for former director of nursing and now volunteer Ruth Letts, who has been photographing, sorting and documenting the items with the help of other volunteers in the hopes of opening up an exhibition dedicated to Fremantle Hospital’s history.

Ms Letts said the items came to her through a range of different methods, both from in Fremantle Hospital and from others like Woodside and Kaleeya.

“A lot of the tertiary hospitals all try to keep their history in tact and a lot of it was kept, like the hand written original board minutes,” she said.

“People have donated as well; I’ve got a box in there from a Dr Barrington Knight who donated a lot of stuff, including a wartime metal medical kit.

“A dinner bell in one show cabinet is actually the Mosman Park annex bell and I’ve had that in my office for 15 years just knowing that one day it would find a place.”

While still a while away from being ready for public viewing, Ms Letts said it was something they were considering to continue the strong links the hospital has had with the local community for more than 100 years.

“It’s important to me and it is important to the ex-trainees and the doctors and so on that went through the hospital to know that someone treasures their memories,” she said.

“This was a community built hospital and it’s about celebrating its history.”