Thomas Embling - Yarra Bend Asylum

Yarra Bend Asylum

Embling's first appointment in Australia was to be as an assistant to the Colonial Surgeon of Victoria. However parliament members James Johnston and Charles Ebden put forward the proposition that Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum required a Resident Medical Officer and Embling was highly suitable. Although not a psychiatrist, Embling had a pioneering interest in the 'moral treatment' of mental illness

Embling's early days at Yarra Bend were not easy. Superintendent George Watson was not pleased with the appointment of a Resident Medical Officer. With the assistance of displaced Visiting Medical Officer Dr Cussen, Watson attempted to thwart Embling's efforts to become involved in the care of inmates. He was refused a pass key and denied access to many of the asylum buildings, including the accommodation that he was to have been provided on the asylum grounds. Efforts to hinder Embling however, only served to strengthen his resolve to become actively involved in the clinical management of his patients. What he saw at Yarra Bend shocked him, his first impressions "were those of great astonishment not unmixed with pain … I saw much that was incomprehensible, and much disreputable."

Despite the obstacles he encountered, Embling implemented significant reforms in a short space of time. He ordered the removal of manacles, camisoles and restraining gloves and rejected the then popular psychiatric practice of punitive "treatment". These reforms were not popular with the Superintendent, nor with the colonial surgeon. He was subsequently charged and brought before a disciplinary hearing, on the grounds that he was "too heroic to be a medical officer".

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