‘Sex and Suffering: Women’s Health and a Women’s Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne 1856–1996′
Book Review by Christine Catling, Chair of the ACM Midwifery History Project Steering Group
Commissioned by the Women’s Hospital, Professor Janet McCalman has sifted through records from the middle of the 19th Century (originally stored in a shed) and put together a wonderful account of the beginnings of this institution. The records included old midwifery books and glorious birth records from as early as 1856. What makes this book unique is that this is about the women who attended the hospital, as the records were predominantly all about them, their pregnancies, births, postnatal care and their gynaecological histories and illnesses.
The founders of the hospital were the wife of the Archbishop of Melbourne and two doctors who came to Australia in a population boom around the time of the gold rush. These people were concerned about the abandoned women from the gold fields; it was apparent that there was no safe place for them to give birth and have care.
Originally a charity hospital – to provide medical care for pregnancy, birth, postnatal care and gynaecological care, doctors would donate their services and women would get treated free of charge. This then morphed into a teaching hospital, where there were two wings – the ‘Lying in hospital’ and the ‘Infirmary’ for the diseases peculiar to women and children.
The hospital became very busy due to increases in population over time. A point of difference and another reason for its popularity was that it admitted single, poor women and cared for them during their births and illnesses. This was quite odd at the time – and even the hospitals from the UK, where the doctors originally had trained, did not always do this. In this respect the hospital founders were ahead of their time – as they knew that if women had no husband or family to look after them financially, then this had a direct bearing on their mortality and that of their children’s lives.
In 1862 the hospital began training nurses and midwives. Once trained, midwives had the option of practising independently. The institution embraced (at the time) unusual practises such as ‘germ theory’ which made a huge difference to the wellbeing and death rates for women and children. Similarly, the hospital staff began to care for women who needed terminations of pregnancy after seeing horrendously ill women coming in with sepsis from backyard abortions.
This book gives a great historical account of the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne 1856–1996. I recommend it!