Welcome to the Sydney University Medical Society (SUMS)! Our Society has a long and proud history, with foundations beginning in 1886, making us Australia’s oldest medical student society. We have over 1,200 students within the School, with local students joining peers from across Australia and the world who are drawn to Sydney Medical School for its reputation as an institution of excellence.
The Society functions for you – we run social events like the annual MedBall, academic functions such as the revered Lambie Dew Oration, advocate to Faculty about curriculum change, and run seminars to fill in those gaps in your learning.
Anderson Stuart, remembering the value of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh to the students and their teachers, called a meeting on 9 April 1886. It was held in the cottage that then housed the Medical School. Thus began the first Faculty society of the University of Sydney. The objects of the Society, according to its first minute book, were the ‘intellectual and social improvement of its members by lectures, essays and discussions, in any branch of medical science, and by any other means calculated to advance the objects of the Society’. Membership was open to the students, then thirty-nine in number, and to members of the teaching staff.
The first Council comprised: the Honorary President, Professor Anderson Stuart; Vice-Presidents, Dr Frederick Milford and Mr Peter Bancroft; Honorary Secretary, Mr Arthur Henry (qq.v.); Honorary Treasurer, Mr P. A. Townley; Honorary Librarian, Mr Cecil Purser; Committee of Management, Dr A. MacCormick (q.v.), Dr E. J. Jenkins, Dr W. Camac Wilkinson (q.v.) and Mr L. E. F. Neill. Meetings were held each month in the Clinical Theatre of Prince Alfred Hospital, and the first student to read a paper was The Rev. David Dunlop Rutledge (q.v.), whose topic was My Life as a Medical Student. The first social function was held on 10 December 1886, and took the curious form of a ‘smoke concert’ in the out-patients’ waiting room at Prince Alfred Hospital. It was so successful that it remained an annual event until 1904.
Early in 1888, the Honorary Secretary of the Society, Cecil Purser, was instructed to write to the Senate, urging ‘the necessity that exists for more regular attendance…of Honorary Medical Officers at Prince Alfred Hospital, and also the necessity of the Honorary Medical Officers giving more bedside instruction than they do at present.’ The Senate declined to recognise an ‘unauthorised’ society among undergraduates, and merely forwarded the letter to the Board of Directors of the Hospital. Consequently, the Society requested recognition, and on 17 April a letter was received from H. E. Barff, the Registrar, stating that ‘I have the honour to inform you that the Senate has decided to recognise the Medical Society, and to allow it to retain the word “University” in connection with its name, and to allow a notice of the Society’s objects etc., to appear in the University Calendar’. According to Grafton Elliot Smith, in 1892 the Council was faced with the problem of deciding whether the Society should be allowed to expire, but interest was revived by an attractive programme of activities. The only comparable crisis was recorded by A. J. Aspinall, who remembered that ‘in 1904 the Society was at a low ebb. The annual smoke concert was held in the dissecting room until Leslie Cowlishaw became Secretary and organized an annual dinner, held in the city, which was largely attended by graduates and undergraduates, and was the means of putting new life into the Society’.
An important factor in the continuing success of the Society was its journal. Hermes, from its first issue in 1886, recorded Medical Society activities, and between 1895 and 1905 provided at a small extra cost a ‘medical supplement’ of sixteen pages, produced by the Society. In 1905 this became an independent annual. In 1913, on the recommendation of Hugh Poate, it was published each term, an arrangement which continued until 1936. Between 1937 and 1942 there were two issues each year. The Journal then became once more an annual, until its last issue in 1974. (There was no issue in 1973.) It is not difficult to assess the importance of the Journal. Its regular appearance—elegant, dignified, full of personal notes, photographs and records—provided a valuable link between members of all grades and ages. It presented a unique record of changing conditions, thought and manners.
Since 1946 the Society has also produced, mainly for the benefit of undergraduates, the less formal and more topical Innominate. This appears irregularly, but since 1977 there has always been an issue entitled Feat First, in Orientation Week, to introduce the Society to first-year students.
In 1922, Wallace Freeborn, a final-year student, organized the production of a Senior Year Book, which recorded by photographs and personal notes all members of his class and their teachers. This became a continuing tradition which provides an interesting and colourful addition to University records.
In its first year the Medical Society arranged for subscriptions to several journals, and these were soon increased by donations. The early Councils always included an Honorary Librarian, and in 1906 J. L. Shellshear took the office very seriously. He formed a nucleus of books, which were housed at Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1910 a branch library was established at Sydney Hospital. There was no separate Medical Library at the University before 1934. Students and staff relied upon Fisher and Faculty collections, and especially upon the Medical Society, which not only had its own collection, but also donated publications and funds to Hospital and University libraries. The tradition continues in the form of the War Memorial Library Fund, which allocates money to teaching hospitals for the purchase of books chosen by the librarians.
Concern at the cost of textbooks, most of which were imported, led during the 1940s to the Council’s examining the feasibility of establishing a ‘Book Scheme’ which would enable it to obtain textbooks—initially ‘on consignment’ from the Times Bookshop in Sydney—which could be sold to students at a small saving. In 1951 this was extended to the import of books from a University bookseller in England, bought at the English retail price. The history of the Book Scheme is long and complex, for it has survived many changes and vicissitudes. Its success is evident in the Medical Society Book Depot in the Blackburn Building. Small, cheerful and busy, it boasts ‘the largest turnover, relative to area’ of any medical bookshop in Australia. Here graduates, students and staff obtain current texts, specialist publications, skeletons and instruments, as well as lecture notes produced by the Society’s own printing service. The Book Scheme is the responsibility of a student Director, assisted by a part-time paid staff, and the General Secretary of the Society, Mrs Sheila Nicholas. Mrs Nicholas has been employed by the Society since 1951, and her continuing service and experience is one of its greatest assets.
Before 1967, when University Administration Units were established at the teaching hospitals, and until the Dean’s Office was developed by Professor Loewenthal, the Society was the chief link between the Faculty and the students. Many a problem in communication and organization was solved by Mrs Nicholas and the Council. In 1971, the Faculty of Medicine was the first at the University of Sydney to have student representation, and in 1972 the newly created Society position of Senior Undergraduate Vice-President ensured representation, with voting rights for the holder of that office.
Apart from maintaining a programme of social activities, the Society is concerned with every aspect of student activity and interest. Members of each pre-clinical year, and of each year at all teaching hospitals, are represented on the Council, which also appoints liaison officers to the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Medical Students’ Association, the Medical Societies of the Universities of N.S.W. and Newcastle, and other associations and societies. It is represented on the Academic Board, the Staff-student Liaison Committee and the Curriculum Committee of the Faculty of Medicine.
Each year the Society invites a distinguished speaker to deliver the ‘Lambie-Dew’ oration in the Great Hall. Another tradition is the Robin May award which commemorates the memory of five members of the Society who were lost at sea in the launch Robin May in 1945. It is awarded, by ballot, to the student who most demonstrates leadership and good fellowship throughout the course.
Source: Anderson, V (1984) “Sydney University Medical Society” in Young J, Sefton A and Webb N, Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine. Sydney University Press, Sydney