The History of the S.A. Branch of the Australian College of Midwives

The Beginnings:-

In South Australia, as in Australia, the history of the midwifery professional organization is undeniably interwoven and interlinked with the history of nursing organizations.

The ACM (SA Branch) was known as the SA Midwives Association, which was a Midwifery Special Interest Group under the auspices of a nursing organization, the then RANF (SA Branch). It was well established in 1962, some 16 years prior to the formation of the National Midwives Association, and is thought to have been operating for some years before then. However, at this time there is no evidence as to when the group first convened.

In 1978, 3 State based midwifery professional organizations, those from Victoria, NSW and S.A. founded the National Midwives Association, which has evolved to the current Australian College of Midwives. Not all States and Territories had local midwifery organizations prior to the formation of the National organization, but by 1982 there was a Branch in every State and Territory.

In South Australia the Royal British Nurses Association (SA Branch) was formed in 1900. (Nurses Memorial Foundation of SA – web site) It was the first organization for nurses in S.A. They bought a property at 12 Dequetteville Terrace, Kent Town (that building is still there today) and provided accommodation for nurses as well as establishing and maintaining a register for nurses until the Nurses Registration Act (SA) 1920. Then the State took over the responsibility for registering nurses, midwives, and mental health nurses. This Association still exists having changed its name and constitution a number of times, and is now known as the Nurses’ Memorial Foundation of SA Ltd. In 1974, they built the Nurses Memorial Centre at 18 Dequetteville Terrace, where their Registered Office is currently located. Meetings of the SA Midwives Association were held there.

The Australian Trained Nurses Association (ATNA) was established in NSW in 1899, and in 1905 the ATNA (SA Branch) was formed. It was from this organization that in 1924, the Australian Nursing Federation in SA evolved. (ANMF- SA Branch web site)

To understand better why midwifery groups were under the auspices of nursing groups in S.A., one must look to how midwives in this State lost their autonomy of practice, and their voice to represent themselves.

The Australian Medical Gazette 21 Nov 1898. p481, says “A nurse always means one who is subordinate to the doctor and has no independent authority. A midwife is one that does not necessarily act under the supervision of a doctor (so long as the case remains uncomplicated). She is individually responsible for the case under her charge. To call her a nurse, with whatever qualifying adjective, is to confuse one who has independent charge with one who has not, but who receives orders from a superior”.(The lost voice of Midwifery’, Summers 1998,The Collegian Vol 5, no.3) “Until the 1920’s doctors and nurses openly acknowledged that midwifery and nursing were separate professions.” (Summers 1998)

Doctors wanting to care for pregnant and birthing women and subsequently their families, feared if the unqualified and autonomous community midwives gained formal education it would pose real competition and a threat to their income. Also, if medicine wanted to introduce any medical advances into midwifery, negotiating with midwives would increase the status of the already autonomous midwife. They saw the only way to control midwives and avoid increasing their status, was through nursing. This led to the idea that to gain midwifery qualifications one must first be a qualified nurse. This in turn led to the development of the ‘obstetric nurse’ which was essential to the subordination of midwifery (Summers 1996).

The subordination of the midwife continued under the Nurses Registration Act (SA) 1920, when the S.A. Nurses Board, in their regulations of that Act, supported the role of the ‘obstetric nurse’. When the Nurses Registration Act (SA) 1920 was enacted, midwifery training was provided at the Queen’s Home (later to become the Queen Victoria Hospital) and at 21 metropolitan and country private hospitals throughout South Australia. After 1920 more small private hospitals were established due to the availability of the cheap labor of trainees, mostly nursing trainees. As well as these training hospitals there were many other midwifery run ‘lying in’ hospitals. The depression of the 1930s followed by the Second World War created financial hardship and staffing shortages which led to the closure of many of these smaller hospitals.

However, at that time most babies were born at home.

The support of SA Nurses Board for the ‘obstetric nurse’ can be seen in the requirements for midwifery training in 1921. Midwifery students had to be 20 years old, and have reached equivalent of Grade 7 education. For those who were general trained nurses the duration of the program was 6 months and for others it was 12 months. Lectures were provided by medical staff appointed by the Hospital Board and the Matron was permitted to provide the lectures on general nursing and invalid cooking. Midwifery students were required to ‘take part’ in conducting 20 deliveries. But the Queen’s Home required trainees to conduct 12 of those deliveries on their own responsibility. The Medical Board of the day fought for that standard for all midwifery trainees.

When the midwifery curriculum was amended in 1962, midwifery students had to be 19 years old and have reached equivalent of a year 10 high school education. For those who were general trained nurses the duration of the program was 12 months and for others it was 24 months. Lectures continued to be provided by medical staff, with an expanded teaching role for the Matron.

By the late 1950s the majority of babies were born in hospital.

The Queen Victoria Hospital continued to provide midwifery training having commenced doing so, in 1901.The first Government Hospital with a maternity section was the Queen Elizabeth Hospital which opened in 1954 and provided midwifery training. Then the Lyell McEwin Hospital, opened in 1959, but only commenced midwifery training in 1970. Margaret Moss was the midwifery educator there at that time and was also an active member and future President of the SA Midwives Association. Modbury Hospital opened in 1973 and soon after provided midwifery training. In country S.A. midwifery training was provided at the Whyalla Hospital and the Mt Gambier Hospital. Calvary Private Hospital opened in 1901 and Memorial Hospital opened in1920 and both provided midwifery training, but not for some time after opening.

This was the environment and lived experience of most South Australian midwives, and using the words midwife and nurse interchangeably was part of that experience. For many, midwifery was considered part of the larger nursing profession. Many of those in the Midwifery Special Interest Group didn’t think twice about being under the auspices of a nursing organization, even though they saw midwifery as a separate and distinct profession to nursing.

It is not known, exactly, when this SA Midwives Association was originally formed.

It is reasonable to presume that any health professional organization formed prior to the Second World War would not have been meeting during the War. Many organizations that existed prior to the war, ceased or went into recess at the start of the war, and reconvened afterwards, as did RANF (SA Branch), between 1939 -1943. (ANMF SA Branch- web site). We don’t know if midwives or a Midwifery organization was meeting in SA prior to the Second World War. But given that the NSW Midwives Association was formed after the war in 1947, it would be reasonable to presume that any professional midwifery organization in SA would have been formed post the Second World War.

What we do know is that midwives were meeting and have continued to meet regularly in Adelaide, since at least 1962 and it is thought for some time prior.

Jenifer (Jenny) Cooling was the President of the SA Midwives Association from 1977-1979 and with support and urging from the SA members was instrumental in the formation of the National Midwives Association. As State President she wrote to all other States and Territories in 1977, suggesting a meeting to consider forming a National Midwives organization. That led to meetings in 1978 where, in July, the National Midwives Association was formed. Jenny was the inaugural Secretary /Treasurer of the National Midwives Association and when Australia was admitted to the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) in September 1978, at the ICM Congress in Jerusalem, Israel, she was elected as the 1st Australian representative on ICM Council.

From an interview with Jenny, she first attended a meeting of the SA Midwives Association in 1962, as a student midwife at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She had been encouraged to attend by a Sister Muller, who, at the time, was in charge of one of the maternity wards there. Jenny went on to say that this group was well established and met every month. She continued to attend, until travelling overseas, between1965-1969. On her return she reconnected with the group, which had continued to meet throughout the time she had been away.

In correspondence sent in 1989, from the SA Branch to the ACM, nominating Jenifer Cooling, Margaret Corboy and Margaret Mutton for Life Membership, it was stated that in 1968, a Sister Rosari (a midwife and Nun from Calvary Hospital North Adelaide) was President of the SA Midwives Association and that Margaret Mutton was the Secretary/Treasurer. Margaret Mutton had been a member of the SA Midwifery Association since the early 1960’s and served as a representative on numerous professional organizations, as well as committees and working parties of both the SA Health Commission and SA Nurses Board. She went onto be President from 1971 -1973, following which she then represented midwives at State, National and International level.

It was in 1968, during the Presidency of Sister Rosari that the first State Seminars were introduced. Monthly lecture meetings and annual Country Study days, followed as part of an active professional development program.

From a discussion with Margaret McCann (nee Corboy), we learned that she first attended a meeting of the SA Midwives Association in late 1969 and became a member in 1970. She was Vice President in 1976-1979 and Treasurer from 1977 -1984. She was SA Treasurer during the period leading to the ICM Congress in Sydney in 1984, when all Branches of the National Midwives Association were fundraising vigorously.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s the SA Midwives Association met monthly at various hospitals around suburban Adelaide. Jenny Cooling and Margaret McCann can remember them meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, The Queen Victoria Hospital, Memorial Hospital and Calvary Private Hospital.

In 1974, after the Nurses Memorial Centre was built, RANF (SA Branch) moved into offices in that building and the SA Midwives Association held their monthly meetings there, too, even after the National Midwives Association decided to secede from the National RANF in 1983.

In 1987 with the National Midwives Association becoming the Australian College of Midwives Inc the SA Midwifery Special Interest Group became the ACM (SA Branch) Inc. Meetings were held at the Queen Victoria Hospital, with the encouragement of the Director of Nursing and Midwifery, Elizabeth Wood, a long-time member of the ACM (SA Branch) and supported by the Hospital Administration. Meetings were again held at the Nurses Memorial Centre in the early1990’s until the SA Branch rented premises at 20A William Street, Norwood in June 1995. This office was originally a butcher’s shop and the cellar was very useful for storage. The office was staffed 1 day a week by volunteer midwives and then paid admin staff until 2016, when following unification of the ACM, the office moved to the current location on the 3rd floor 97 Pirie St, Adelaide.

The SA Midwives Association from the beginning was an active organization working within South Australia providing representation, education, and both professional and social support for midwives across the State. Once the National Midwives Association was formed in 1978, activity increased to include work in support of the National organization. An example being the work of Dorothy Marriott, a midwife working at Hindmarsh Hospital at the time, and a member of the SA Midwifery Special Interest Group. She designed the first National Midwives Association logo, in time for the first National Conference, held in Adelaide in 1979. After that inaugural National Conference, significant effort focused on all the activities necessary in preparation for the first Australian, ICM Congress in Sydney in 1984.


This is the beginning of the beginning story of the ACM (SA Branch). As more information about the early days is discovered, it will be added. Over time many other stories of the various activities of the SA Branch and the midwives involved through the years will also be included.

Prepared for International Day of the Midwife, 5 May 2022

Prepared on behalf of ACM (SA Branch) by Chris Cornwell, Life member, ACM, and Marijke Eastaugh, Member ACM and a past President of the SA Branch, in consultation with many, and with the advice and support from Honorary Advisors to the Australian Midwifery History Project, Jenifer Cooling, Distinguished Fellow and Life Member ACM, Elizabeth Wood, Fellow ACM and Dr Annette Summers AO RFD Fellow ACM (rtd).

Supported by the National Council of Women, NCWSA, with the awarding of a Ruth Gibson Scholarship to Marijke Eastaugh to document the history of the ACM (SA Branch).