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John Soame Richardson (1836–1896)

by David Roth

Gregory Pemberton, in his 1976 biography of Major-General John Soame Richardson (1836-1896) in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), reviews Richardson’s earlier life and military career in the British Army in the Crimean War and in New Zealand. After joining the New South Wales armed forces in 1864, he became officer commanding in 1876. Richardson was the leader of the New South Wales contingent which made an undistinguished contribution to the Sudan campaign of 1885. He was promoted to Major-General on his return. Pemberton mentions Richardson’s failing health in the years before he was officially retired in late October 1892 while on sick leave and his subsequent admission to a private mental hospital (Cook’s River) in late November. But he does not reveal the specific nature of Richardson’s illness, or the likelihood that he was incapacitated for duty for some years before he was officially retired. The nature of his illness is revealed in Richardson’s case notes at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, a state asylum, where he was transferred in May 1894. We do not know why Richardson was transferred. It seems unlikely that his family could no longer afford private asylum fees. At Richardson’s death in 1896, his estate was valued at £8233, perhaps over a million dollars in 2022 values. He had been receiving an annual pension of £650. 

The Cook’s River transfer notes, which were appended to Richardson’s Callan Park case notes, state that he had been ‘more or less an invalid for some years, unable to stand with confidence’ before admission. These observations are somewhat at odds with the actual nature of his medical condition and with his record of military duties in the years leading up to his retirement. Richardson did have a long record of unfitness for duty. He had taken a year’s sick leave as early as 1881. He had taken several months’ sick leave for an undisclosed ailment in February 1890 and again in January 1892. He was sent to New Zealand on sick leave for two months in September 1892, and was officially retired in November. Pemberton’s 1975 article on Richardson in the RMC Historical Journal suggests that the cause was ‘increasing mental instability’. Yet his report on the state of the colony’s defences for 1891 was well received in Parliament and in the press. And Richardson carried out a full program of military inspections and social functions when not absent due to illness. His oral evidence to the Royal Commission on Defence called in June 1892 is lucid and rational. Yet the Commission found that important papers had been put aside for months or simply ignored, and that the state of the colony’s defences was unsatisfactory. 

Richardson displayed severe mental symptoms on admission to Cook’s River. He was ‘excited in movement or talk’,  had ‘exalted ideas’, and became ‘lost in a maze of illogical and bombastic assertions’. Yet there was no mention of any mental or physical symptoms (other than ‘fever and ague’) in newspaper accounts of his public appearances and absences from 1890. The Town and Country Journal’s favourable summing-up of Richardson’s career upon his retirement speculated that the episodes of ill-health were due to an illness contracted during the Sudan campaign. In view of his frequent absences and the criticism received at the Royal Commission, it is likely that his increasing incapacity was tolerated by the government of the day and by his subordinates. It is probable that newspapers euphemised his symptoms, given his evident popularity as shown by the crowds at his funeral. In retrospect it seems that the Cook’s River doctors were also disingenuous about Richardson’s illness, attributing it to concussion from a shell burst at the Crimea, and apparently giving a diagnosis of ‘mania’. At least this was the initial diagnosis made upon his transfer to Callan Park. 

At some time after his admission, Richardson’s diagnosis was altered to General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI), an almost invariably fatal form of end-stage syphilis with crippling and progressive physical and mental symptoms, including paralysis. Death usually follows within two years. In the earlier stages of the disease, before the appearance of mental illness, the patient may develop lesions which may increasingly damage the heart, the skin and the bones, sometimes fatally. About five to ten per cent of syphilis sufferers progress to GPI, sometimes decades after the initial infection. In the late nineteenth century, perhaps ten per cent of Australians had syphilis. My research into Callan Park and other NSW asylums suggests that about a quarter of male patients were diagnosed with GPI. 

Some of Richardson’s mental and physical symptoms at admission to Cook’s River in 1892 are consistent with GPI, but could well have arisen from other conditions. He had been ‘considerably excited’ before admission, had ‘exalted ideas’, and spoke ‘illogically and bombastically’ about forthcoming riches from land speculation. He claimed to be King of Bavaria and ordered fellow patients to be flogged or shot on the slightest provocation. Richardson refused food and had to be force-fed for about a year. He became progressively feebler and was ‘incorrect in his habits’ (a euphemism for incontinence). On transfer to Callan Park in 1894, he could not talk coherently and violently resisted restraint or control. Indeed he was impossible to weigh and had to be sedated soon after admission. 

Soon after admission to Callan Park, a series of standard tests indicated that Richardson had GPI and his initial diagnosis of ‘mania’ was revised accordingly. While the confirmatory Wassermann test for syphilis would only be developed after 1906, asylum doctors had been familiar with the symptoms of GPI since at least the mid-century. As noted, perhaps a quarter of NSW patients had this condition, which was usually terminal within two years. Reflecting his former social status and the degree of public interest, Richardson’s case notes are conspicuously more detailed and frequent than for the general run of patients. His progressive mental and physical decline is well documented, along with ever shorter intervals of relative lucidity. About two years after admission, after persistent attacks of epileptiform convulsions, Richardson lapsed into a coma and died at the age of 60. 

At this period, GPI was not generally associated with syphilis in the public mind. It was regarded as a mental illness with physical symptoms. Using statistical analysis, some researchers had made this connection as early as the 1880s. Indeed it is likely that an anonymous Cook’s River doctor was aware of the association when he coyly noted that Richardson ‘had a history of specific contagion some 20 years ago.’ It is also possible that he had contracted syphilis in the Sudan in 1885. The British Medical Association had accepted the syphilis theory by 1900. While sufferers from GPI had been stigmatised, along with other mental patients, in consequence of their distressing mental symptoms, they became especially the subject of reproach and shame when the lay public became generally aware around 1910 that GPI was a consequence of a sexually transmitted disease, a disease that could be passed to the new-born. This stigma became evident when the incidence of mentions of GPI in Australian death notices declined very sharply after 1910. Despite his demise in an asylum, Richardson was clearly not stigmatised in death. Newspaper accounts of his death extolled his distinguished military career. Large crowds attended the funeral, which was accompanied by a large military contingent. 

Curiously perhaps, Pemberton does not mention the nature of Richardson’s illness and its cause in either of his articles on the general. This circumspection seems odd given the frequency and length of Richardson’s episodes of illness. But the cause of his complaint was never mentioned in the public record. In 1976 NSW asylum case notes were subject to a ‘110 year rule’ and notes made after 1866 were not available to the general public.

Select Bibliography

  • McCarthy, J. M., “Australia and the Sudan War; some contemporary issues in an old setting,” RMC Historical Journal 1 (1972) : 21-28.
  • Pemberton, Gregory J., 'Richardson, John Soame (1836–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 3 October 2022.
  • Pemberton, Gregory J., “Major-General Richardson in New South Wales, 1858-1892,” RMC Historical Journal 24 (1975) : 9-28.
  • Roth, David T., “'The Red Plague' and General Paralysis of the Insane at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane in New South Wales, 1877-1920,” Health and History 24, no. 1 (2022) : 109-127.
  • Roth, David T., Chapter 4, “General Paralysis of the Insane” in "Life, Death and Deliverance at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, 1877 to 1923," (PhD Thesis, Australian National University, 2020).

Original Publication

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6. [View Article]

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Roth, 'Richardson, John Soame (1836–1896)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


16 March, 1836
Heydon, Norfolk, England


9 June, 1896 (aged 60)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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