Bancroft Exhibition – Medical Plants

The Bancroft Exhibition Notes, Edited by Karen Tyler and Huxley Baberowski.

Medical Plants

Dr Joseph Bancroft was a doctor in England before he came to Queensland in 1886. Joseph Bancroft studied medicine in the late 1850’s in Manchester, England. He was a traditional doctor-naturalist typical of the nineteenth century. In those days, there were not many drugs to treat illnesses, so doctor used plants for treatment and they had to find them for themselves.

When he came to Australia, Dr Joseph Bancroft studied native plants to find out all he could about what he could use to treat his patients. He talked to the Aboriginal people, who had a lot of knowledge about the local plant, and also tested them out on himself, as well as on animals, to see how they worked. He let other doctors know when he found plants that could be used to heal people.

Preparing food
Preparing food

His son, Thomas, was four when they came to Brisbane. They lived among rainforest trees on their property which was called ‘Kelvin Grove’ after a Garden in Glasgow. Scotland which the family had visited. When his father wanted plants from among the rainforest, Thomas would go out on his pony to collect them. He knew which ones to get because he had learned about them from his father.

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Thomas became so interested in the uses of plants for medicine, that he spent many years studying them. The Bancrofts used to test plants by tasting them to see if they were bitter or sharp. For the ones that were bitter, they then injected them into frogs to see what effect they had.

Using this method, Thomas tested over 1,000 plants between 1886 and 1894. He also wrote 10 scientific papers (essays) about the properties of plants.


  • A Century of Scientific Endeavour by Ian Mackerras and Elizabeth Marks.
  • The Bancroft Tradition Edited by John Pearn and Lawarie Powell
  • The Bancrofts, Elizabeth Marks and Josephine Bancroft
  • The Impact of the Bancroft Kindred on Australian Medical Science, Frank Fenner
  • Pituri, Plants and Physic, Alan Cribb, Joan Cribb and John Pearn

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