In 1870 the Melbourne Hospital for Sick Children opened its doors. Located in a small house, it offered just six beds to accommodate patients. Six years later, the hospital moved to a larger premise on Rathdowne Street, with a total of 24 beds.

Although Australia was free from most infectious disease for several decades after white settlement, when such illnesses arrived their severity was increased by the low immunity of the population. Whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, dysentery, typhoid fever and measles all took a heavy toll on Australian children.

Doctors still didn’t know the cause of many of these diseases, or how to treat them. A child with whooping cough could expect to be put in a closed room with a hot shovel laced with carbolic acid, while under-developed children were given brandy and milk to build their strength, and spoonful’s of turpentine treated rashes. Despite this, good nursing and hygiene ensured hospitals were no longer breeding grounds for infection.

In 1903 babies were admitted to the hospital for the first time, and by 1921 a whole new ward would be dedicated to babies, with a special physiotherapy gymnasium and treatment room.

In the 1930s a 100-bed orthopaedic campus was opened in Mt Eliza to care for children suffering from tuberculosis, osteomyelitis and infantile paralysis. Throughout the 1940s and 50s the scourge of polio would see thousands of young people hospitalised for long periods.

But medical care at the hospital was rapidly evolving.

In 1944 a nine-year-old patient named Allan Goates became the first at the hospital to receive penicillin from his doctor. Then, between 1948 and 1950, chemotherapy was used on children with leukaemia, in the world’s first controlled trial of the drug.

In 1963 Queen Elizabeth opened The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) in Parkville, a brand new building seven-storeys high, with 400 beds and improved facilities for every department. Melbourne now had the most advanced facilities for the care and treatment of sick children, and for paediatric teaching and research.

The following years would bring a raft of new developments, from the acquisition of the hospital’s first dialysis machine to the introduction of ultrasound technology. In 1988 doctors undertook the hospital’s first heart transplant on a child.

From a modest start in a small house, the RCH had grown to become a world leading hospital, but, once again, it had grown too big for its current home.

In 2011 Queen Elizabeth opened the brand new RCH campus, beside its former site. With six levels of clinical, research and education facilities, the new RCH is a family-focused healing environment with improved accommodation for patients and their families, indoor and outdoor play areas – all surrounded by parklands and filled with natural light.

The story of how the RCH has grown from humble beginnings to become one of the world’s great paediatric hospitals is tale of visionary people dedicated to building something extraordinary; a story of thousands of heroes, some celebrated and some forgotten, whose tenacity as medical innovators, nurses, volunteers, educators, researchers, philanthropists, fundraisers, administrators and supporters has created a much-loved institution with a place in the heart of all Victorians.

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Illustrated by Mark Conlan