Born in Banty, County Cork, in 1805, Doctor Thomas Young Cotter's connection with South Australia dates back to December 1835, when he was appointed Colonial Surgeon in England. He had been able to supply several impressive testimonials which spoke of his 'great quantity of practical knowledge of his profession' and also about his work at the Western Dispensary in London where he was Resident Medical Officer.
After his arrival on the Coromandel at Nepean Bay on 10 January 1837, he was informed by Robert Gouger that his duties in the colony 'would be exactly similar to those of a parish surgeon in England'. Three months later, while residing at Glenelg, Cotter applied for the position of Coroner and pointed out that 'being the Colonial Surgeon, appointed by the Commissioners, I need not speak as to my qualifications'. The Appointment I hold, he said, 'is in itself sufficient guarantee for the proper discharge of any duties I may have to perform'. Cotter also looked after the sick who were locked up in the Adelaide Gaol.
The government was not convinced and he did not score that job. Two weeks later, he had to ask Robert Gouger for the first instalment of his yearly salary. Cotter was quick to see and grasp opportunities to make money. Within a short time of his arrival in the young colony he had invested in two townacres. Three years later, while living in Grenfell Street, Adelaide he sold half an acre in Grenfell Street for $1500. At the same time though Dr Cotter contributed generously to the building funds of Trinity Church and the Wesleyan Methodist Church.
In 1838 Dr Cotter was involved with the first inquest held in South Australia. It was as a result of the death of Enoch Peglar, 'who had been wilfully murdered by a native or natives unknown'. As a result of several controversial matters, Cotter was dismissed as Colonial Surgeon on 17 August 1838. Cotter had also very strong feelings about personal belongings. This was clearly shown when a pig, belonging to Sir James Malcolm, made a mess of his vegetable garden. Without any further ado Cotter went for his gun and shot the pig.
Although there was now a good supply of bacon, Sir James Malcolm was not impressed and took him to court, where the doctor was fined $16 for his trouble. Apart from being involved in medicine and medical research, Cotter was also an early advocate of medical insurance schemes. In 1840 he was on the Committee of the Literary and Scientific Association and Mechanics' Institute. In 1841 Cotter resumed his private practice and 'requested that applications for his professional attendance may be left at Elphick's Despensary in Rundle Street, near Gawler Place'.
When G.R. Thompson discovered copper in 1843 on his property at Magill, it was Cotter who signed the certificate stating that a large part of the sample contained sulphuret of copper. As early as April 1841 Cotter had made assays of the silver ore discovered at Glen Osmond, which gave rise to the Wheal Gawler mine. Cotter even found time to make drawings for a reaping machine which he submitted along with those of Ridley and Bull.
On 6 February 1840, his wife gave birth to a son, followed on 22 April 1841 by twin sons and on 3 September 1842 by a daughter. Eventually the Cotter family would have six sons and three daughters. Dr Cotter also found time to be involved in colonial politics, and apparently had a long history of being embroiled in the sacking of both Governor Hindmarsh and Governor Gawler. Dr Cotter was also very mobile, both socially and geographically. He worked from Robe in the south to Nuccaleena in the north.
In 1846 he lived and worked at Macclesfield. At Robe, where he provided medical services for the girls at the Servants Depot, during 1855 it caused some ill-feeling and he was replaced in January 1856 after the death of Ann Campbell in January 1856. Apparently he was drunk and incapable at the time when needed most. The immigrants stated that they had lost all confidence in him.
This was certainly not the first time that a complaint had been made against Dr Cotter. As early as 1838 his competence was questioned in connection with his dealings with the Adelaide Infirmary. In one case it had been alleged that after "having tapped a patient for the dropsy" he had not visited him again for eight days. On another occassion it was stated that a man who had been brought up from the Port with his hand shattered by the explosion of a powder flask, was not visited by the surgeon till the fourth day after he had been in the infirmary. Conduct like this was unjustifiable, and call was made upon the authorities to notice and punish it. A subsequent inquiry found that this was indeed a case of gross neglect.
In 1863 Doctor Thomas Young Cotter was appointed medical officer at Nuccaleena and also performing the function of Secretary for the Great Northern Copper Mining Company of South Australia. On 8 October 1863 while practising at Nuccaleena, Dr Cotter was invited by the people of Port Augusta to open his practice at the Port, and offered a guaranteed income. Though at first willing, he later declined because "the settlers in the north are unwilling to lose my services and have offered such inducements as would render undesirable to remove from the district".
Cotter was often called upon to perform jobs not directly related to his medical practice. In July 1864 he reported to L. Glyde, Commissioner of Crown Lands, that he had performed some post-mortem examinations on a number of working bullocks who had recently died in the neighbourhood. While being watched by Charles Bonney Cotter declared that the bullocks had died from Pleuro Pneumonia.
It was during his time at Nuccaleena that his eldest daughter Ellen Fisher Cotter married James B Gibbs of Moolooloo Station. On the same day, 13 December 1864, his second daughter Jane Mary, born 3 September 1842, married Frederick Frost.
A year later, on 4 December 1865, Dr Cotter became a grandfather when his daughter Ellen gave birth to a healthy son. Cotter stayed at the mine until 1866.
On 19 March 1868 Dr Cotter was appointed medical officer for the destitute poor within the corporation of Glenelg. Tree months later he was himself admitted to the emergency ward of the Adelaide Hospital with a badly broken leg. It was another four weeks before he was well enough to be discharged. Later he, and his large family, moved to Port Augusta where he was appointed Public Vaccinator. Dr Cotter died on 9 January 1882, aged 76.