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Aboriginal Medical Service

Indigenous Australians have typically had more health problems than non-Indigenous Australians. In the early 1970s, Aboriginal parents could expect their children to have a mortality rate twenty times the national average - the average Indigenous child was malnourished and suffered problems of substandard physical and mental development. Adults faced similarly appalling standards of health.

In mid-1971, Gordon Briscoe, Shirley (Mum Shirl) Smith, Lyn Craigie, Norma Williams, Sol Bellear, Roberta Sykes and other community activists were instrumental in the formation of the first Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, New South Wales, in an attempt to help counteract these problems within their own community. They had reacted with disillusionment and outrage to the poor treatment of the Indigenous community in Redfern by the mainstream health services, but were inspired by the experience of the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), which had opened in Redfern in June 1970.

The successful establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service had convinced these activists that it was possible to provide an independent, free and professional service to the Indigenous community with minimal government funding or resources. Moreover, these activists had seen how the ALS had been able to garner the support of sympathetic white professionals while retaining Indigenous control and direction of the organisation. In the case of the Aboriginal Medical Service, initial assistance was received from Dr Ferry Grunseit and Dr Fred Hollows. From those small beginnings grew a network of more than 60 Aboriginal Health Services across Australia which, by the 1990s, were being funded by the federal government through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).