Recommended reading & featured books

Adcock, Winifred, Bayliss, Ursula, Butler, Sr Marietta, Hayes, Pamela, Woolston, Hazel, and Sparrow, Patricia. (1984). With Courage and Devotion: A History of Midwifery in New South Wales. NSW Midwives Association.

Dictionaries define history as a ‘record of events’… ‘a systematic account of natural phenomena’. There is nothing more natural than birth and no event more worthy of being recorded. To this end a small group of midwives, members of the NSW Midwives Association (RANF) compiled this short history of midwifery in our State. Whilst collecting material we became aware of the courage and devotion which had been the tradition of the ‘midwife’ in NSW, be it the Aboriginal woman being helped by the women of her family, the convict helping her fellow convict, or the ‘Granny’ going to the aid of her neighbour. From the Dreamtime to the present day, the content depicts the loneliness and hardships experienced by the mother and her helper, the resourcefulness of the early pioneers and the flexibility of the modern midwife who is as comfortable working in isolation in the outback as she is joining the obstetric team in high technology units. It is hoped that this book will be read with pride by midwives and with pleasure by all who have been involved in any way in the ‘birthing process’. – Preface

Best, Odette, & Fredericks, Bronwyn. (2021). Yatdjuligin: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nursing and Midwifery Care (3rd ed.), Cambridge University Press.

Yatdjuligin: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nursing and Midwifery Care introduces students to the fundamentals of health care of Indigenous Australians, encompassing the perspectives of both the client and the health practitioner. Written for all nurses and midwives, this book addresses the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and mainstream health services and introduces readers to practice and research in a variety of healthcare contexts. This new edition has been fully updated to reflect current research and documentation, with an emphasis on cultural safety. Three new chapters cover Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing, social and emotional wellbeing in mainstream mental health services and quantitative research. Chapter content is complemented by case study scenarios, author reflections and reflection questions. These features illustrate historical and contemporary challenges, encourage students to reflect on their own attitudes and values, and provide strategies to deliver quality, person-centred health care.

  • Author team comprising leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, researchers and practising nurses and midwives
  • Encompasses both nursing and midwifery practice as well as the roles of Indigenous health workers and practitioners
  • Emphasises principles of cultural safety and culturally safe practice throughout

Available October 2021 from Cambridge University Press

Fielding, Trisha. (2019). Neither Mischievous nor Meddlesome: The remarkable lives of North Queensland’s independent midwives 1890-1940. North Queensland History Press.

This is the fascinating story of a group of North Queensland women who tirelessly devoted their lives to the service of others, but have largely been forgotten by the communities in which they lived and worked. Even though doctors thought many midwives were mischievous and meddlesome, and actively sought to eradicate them, it was women who dominated in the provision of midwifery services in the North. It was midwives who built and operated private general hospitals and conducted lying-in hospitals from their own homes, all before the advent of government-funded maternity hospitals. This book examines the courageous lives of the women who quietly went about their duties with dignity and grace, though they were often faced with the same challenges as their patients – the perils of childbirth, loneliness and isolation, and frequent tragedy. –Back cover.

Purchase through Trisha Fielding’s North Queensland History website or email with your name and contact details.

Book Review: James Cook University Library, Dec 2019

Gaff-Smith, Mavis. (2004). Riverina Midwives: From the Mountains to the Plains. Triple D Books.

Riverina Midwives collects the stories of the hard work, courage, improvisation, humour and grief which accompanied the settlement of one of Australia’s richest rural areas. It is a tribute to the women who went with their men into shepherds’ huts, fettlers’ camps and settlers’ tents, bark shelters and iron sheds, and to the women who helped them to bring generations of healthy young Australians into the world.

Book can be purchased by emailing

Gaff-Smith, Mavis. (2010). No births on Monday. Triple D Books.

No Births on Monday tells the story of midwifery services in rural and remote areas of Australia from the days before European settlement until the present. While the focus is on the south and west of New South Wales, the history ranges beyond the narrative of the accomplishments of individual midwives to consider the sorts of services formerly available to expectant mothers, and those sometimes lesser which they can now access. The book looks at the importance of early training midwifery hospitals and Tresillian nurses. It pays tribute to individual midwives and small community-based ‘lying-in’ hospitals. It chronicles the growth of concern with infant nutrition. It considers some of the myths and legends which surrounded pregnancy and childbirth. No Births on Monday asks the hard questions about where maternity services are going in Australia in the twenty-first century, and makes a plea for decision makers to listen to the needs and concerns of the women they are supposed to serve. – back cover

Book can be purchased by emailing

Gaff-Smith, Mavis. (2016). Midwives and rabbit snatchers. Triple D Books.

Midwives and Rabbit Snatchers is the latest in the series of works in which Dr Mavis Gaff-Smith records the stories of the women who have assisted Australia’s mothers in that most vulnerable of all the times in their lives – the weeks of gestation and when they are giving birth. The book pays tribute to the role of Aboriginal midwives among their own people and for the help they gave to settlers’ wives, often far from other women and from medical help. She pays particular attention to the stories of the koori women at Hollywood Mission near Yass and at Erambie, near Cowra. Just as earlier volumes in the series have focussed on specific areas of the colony and then the state of New South Wales. Midwives and Rabbit Snatchers scans the stories of the ‘granny’ midwives and the trained nurses who conducted hospitals, small and large, from the Snowy Mountains to ‘The Levels’ of the Lachlan, from the South-West Slopes to the Southern Tablelands. Mavis Gaff-Smith is passionate both about her calling as a midwife, and about the stories of the brave women who have preceded her as mothers and in the profession. –Back cover.

Book can be purchased by emailing Mavis at

Gaff-Smith, Mavis. (2018). Midwives and paddle steamers. Triple D books

From Corryong in the Australian Alps to Wellington on Lake Alexandria, the Murray River, the longest river on the continent, flows 2805 kilometres across south-eastern Australia. The Bangarang believe that the river was formed by an angry giant snake that slithered down from the hills, thrashing and sliding and creating a deep and wide watercourse. European settlers recognised that the river flooded to the sunburned Riverina plain and they settled its banks on both sides with farms and villages and towns and cities. The river is an umbilical cord providing water, the life-blood of the land. For more than twenty years, Dr Mavis Gaff-Smith, herself a midwife, has researched the impact of the provision of midwifery and Maternal and Child Welfare services on colonial and early national development. This is the fourth and final book in the quartet which commemorates the work of pioneer midwives across southern New South Wales, northern Victoria, and the eastern corner of South Australia. The other three books are: Riverina Midwives from the Mountains to the Plains, No Births on Monday and Midwives and Rabbit Snatchers. Midwives have practised since the beginning of time, so every place has a story to tell about a midwife, and the stories of the midwives together help to tell the stories of the places. – Back cover

Book can be purchased by emailing

Gilmore, Mary. (1934). Old days, old ways: A book of recollections. Angus & Robertson

Mary Gilmore was born in 1865, and died Dame Mary Gilmore in 1962. In this work, she describes life in the 19th century in fine detail, and midwife Mrs. Bennett in particular.

Godden, Judith.  (2016).  Crown Street Women’s Hospital: A history 1893-1983.  Crows Nest, NSW:  Allen & Unwin.

Crown Street Women’s Hospital: A history 1893-1983

The history of Sydney’s pioneering maternity hospital is also a history of medical care for women in Australia, from the days of untrained midwives to alternative birthing units.

Crown Street Women’s Hospital was the largest women’s hospital in NSW. Located in the heart of Surry Hills, it was a referral hospital for women throughout the State and a leading teaching centre for obstetricians and midwives. Affectionately known as ‘Crown Street’, an essential part of its role was caring for the poorest and most marginalised women in Sydney.

Crown Street became internationally famous after its success eliminating eclampsia, a major cause of maternal death. It was the centre of the thalidomide scandal, and renowned for its care of newborn babies. From its first years, it sheltered homeless pregnant women; its later practices contributed to the grief of forced adoptions. It was where a stream of women went after botched illegal abortions. In its final years, its Birth Centre revolutionised birth practices in Australia. Among the many individual stories is that of May Yarrowick, who in 1907 became the first formally trained Aboriginal midwife, and that of Edna Shaw, Sydney’s most popular matron.

The announcement of Crown Street’s closure resulted in public uproar and demonstrations in the streets. This comprehensive history reflects Sydney’s rich past, and reveals why Crown Street’s 90 years had such a powerful impact on so many.

Available from Allen & Unwin

Kyle, Noeline. (2001).  Memories & dreams: A biography of nurse Mary Kirkpatrick.  Author.

Memories and Dreams is a regional and local history. It is also a woman’s story. It traces the journey of  Belfast-born immigrant Mary Kirkpatrick (nee Magee) to Ultimo, Sydney to Armidale and then to the Macleay Valley. Nurse Mary Kirkpatrick (1862-1943) was the first trained midwife and established the first private maternity hospital in the town of Kempsey. She walked her midwifery beat for more than forty years, literally trudging daily the streets and lanes of Kempsey and its hinterland. This is a story of women’s business, of midwifery; more than thirty women practised midwifery between 1900 and 1930 in Kempsey. Nurse Kirkpatrick knew all of these women, she worked with them, was friends and colleagues with most of them, competed with them, shared resources and often her home with them (including Matron Mary Gulliford, Nurse Adelaide (Cook) McCarthy, Nurse Martha Norman, Nurse Agnes Rickerby, Nurse Una (Tessier) Jemesen, Sister Phyllis Tyrell, sister Eva Hodgson, Dr Brabazon Casement and Catherine Ramsay). This is a woman’s story, and how women survived independently in country towns. 

Noeline Kyle is the great granddaughter of Nurse Mary Kirkpatrick. Her mother Kathleen, her aunts Lorna and Jean, and uncle Slim Dusty (David Gordon Kirkpatrick) are grandchildren of Mary Kirkpatrick.

Purchase through Noeline Kyle’s Writing Family History website or email

Kyle, Noeline. (2017). Women’s business: Midwives on the mid North Coast of New South Wales to 1950, a study of Armidale, Kempsey and Port Macquaire. Author.

This book details the training, careers, family life, business enterprises, travel to and between towns/villages, friendships and partnerships, community participation and their contribution to the profession of 200 midwives and the hospitals they established or managed. Mothers and daughters walking together, two or three sisters, and friends, so many women friends establishing hospitals, practicing their midwifery together, operating a business together or simply working in the same place. This is an extraordinary history of women developing professional maternity care for women in country towns. Many decades since they are still remembered in these communities. This publication ensures that their stories are recorded for future generations.”–Back cover.

Purchase through Noeline Kyle’s Writing Family History website or email

Leap, Nicky, & Hunter, Billie. (2013). The midwife’s tale: An oral history from handywoman to professional midwife. Pen & Sword.

Billie Hunter and Nicky Leap spent several years interviewing dozens of mothers and retired midwives about their experiences of childbirth before the NHS. The result was ‘The Midwife’s Tale’, an oral history of midwifery from the 1910s to the 1950s. The authors explore the very real poverty of the time; how woman coped with rearing large families; and the lack of knowledge of contraception and abortion. Gripping accounts of women’s experiences are set against an informative background of events in the midwifery profession, particularly the transition from unqualified ‘handywoman’ to professional midwife in the 1930s.

Purchase at publisher Pen & Sword Books

McCalman,  Janet.  (1999).  Sex and suffering: Women’s health and a women’s hospital, The Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne, 1856 – 1996.  Carlton, Vic.,  Melbourne University Press.

A vivid social history of health and disease, medicine and nursing, and the intimate lives of ordinary women.

Sex and Suffering is a ground-breaking work. It tells the often shocking story of women’s desperation to gain control over their lives and their health, and of medicine’s struggle to comprehend and manage the mysteries of nature.

It offers a graphic and revealing history of childbirth in Australia; of the medical care of women; of nursing and gender roles; and of the impact of immigration on Australian society.

Remarkably, thousands of detailed case notes, from the 1850s to the 1930s, survived intact at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne. For the first time in the English-speaking world a historian was allowed to work directly from these confidential patient records.

Janet McCalman vividly recreates the lives of patients and the daily work of a hospital. She enables readers to follow the institution through times of growth and economic depression, through the grim history of criminal abortion, and through the inspiring story of medical science and surgery since the coming of anaesthesia.

Sex and Suffering is a vivid and absorbing social history of women’s health, seen through the work of Australia’s oldest women’s hospital.

Available from Melbourne University  Press

‘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!

Potter, Leslie. (2017).  Mistress of her Profession: Colonial Midwives of Sydney 1788-1901. Anchor Books Australia.

Before any official midwifery training was instigated in New South Wales numerous women worked as midwives. Many were untrained and practised independently but a few had overseas midwifery qualifications which gave them prestige in the practice of their craft. In the days of secret abortions and baby farming, before modern medical procedures saved the lives of thousands of women and babies, midwives emerged from the ranks of convicts and free immigrants as entrepreneurs. Their business activities, attitudes, work ethic and experiences formed the foundations that helped to shape midwifery for future generations. This book weaves the stories of nine midwives into an account of the development of midwifery training in New South Wales. The women’s lives span the nineteenth century and provide a fascinating perspective of maternity care and life in colonial Sydney. Before any official midwifery training was instigated in New South Wales numerous women worked as midwives. Many were untrained and practised independently but a few had overseas midwifery qualifications which gave them prestige in the practise of their craft. In the days of secret abortions and baby farming, before modern medical procedures saved the lives of thousands of women and babies, midwives emerged from the ranks of convicts and free immigrants as entrepreneurs. Their business activities, attitudes, work ethic and experiences formed the foundations that helped to shape midwifery for future generations. This book weaves the stories of nine midwives into an account of the development of midwifery training in New South Wales. The women’s lives span the nineteenth century and provide a fascinating perspective of maternity care and life in colonial Sydney.

Purchase book through Anchor Books Australia

Potter, Leslie. (2020).  Born in Glebe: Mothers, midwives & medical men. Author.

Intrigued by a small group of midwives working in the suburb of Glebe in the late nineteenth century, the author sets out to discover the identity of these women and the nature of their midwifery practice. Along the way, investigating those who were present at a number of birth registrations for the year 1890, to her amazement she discovered there were many other women acting as midwives and attendants at the confinement of Glebe women. The majority of these midwives were untrained; underlining the taunt of Sir James Graham in the NSW Parliament that Sydney was honeycombed with such women. Despite their reputation as dangerous practitioners most of these women were capable and safe accoucheurs despite the troubling maternal and infant mortality statistics of this period. Potter positions maternity care within the local historical context of Glebe in Sydney at the closing period of the colonial period and before the birth of the Australian nation. Appraising the lives of ordinary people, mothers as well as midwives and medical men, she relates how birthing was conducted on the cusp of medical obstetric advancements in this important area of health and wellbeing. It also enables the reader to appreciate the growing concern of government and society for the welfare of the emerging nation determined by its population growth. – National Library of Australia

Purchase book through Lesley directly: download the order form here.

Shephard, Elsie. (1989). The midwives of Rosewood and other birth stories. Pioneer Women’s Hut.

Before the turn of the 19th Century, much of the land around Rosewood was mostly leased by squatters who ran cattle. One of these squatters (a member of Parliament and an Englishman) called his property ‘Rosewood Station’, so this could be how Rosewood became the name for the little village. Even though the country was heavily timbered it was quite open and had a lot of places a cart could be driven,  there were very few deep creeks and washways. Prospectors followed the creeks for gold and spread the word about the good grazing land, this land later being released for selectors. Selectors had wives, wives had babies so midwives were needed. What is written is a testimonial to these great ladies. – Foreword

Midwives featured are Mrs Bennett, Mrs Cobden, & Matron Holswich/Mrs Greenhalgh.

Published by The Pioneer Women’s Hut (Glenroy, NSW).

Shephard, Elsie.  (1991).  The midwives of Tumbarumba and other birth stories.  Pioneers Women’s Hut.

A history of midwives in the Tumbarumba district from about 1837 to 1974. Granny midwives included are Bridget Batson, Margaret Kinstlet, Maria Therese Diessel, Annie Carrol, Sophie McLachlan, Caroline Willimott, Bridget Parsons, Charlotte Bell, Margaret Metcalf, Eva McLachland. Other midwives were Vere Perkins, Mrs Burte, Mrs Perks, Mrs Armstrong, Mrs Burgen, Mrs Taggert, Mrs Aughtie, Emma Louise Lewis, Mrs Mitchell. The Lying in Hospitals of Elizabeth Broadhurst, Mrs Perks Maternity Home, Mrs Greenhalgh; Also covers the Bush Nursing Home; Tumbarumba doctors and the hospital.

Published by The Pioneer Women’s Hut (Glenroy, NSW).

Willis, Evan. (1989). Medical dominance: The division of labour in Australian health care. Allen & Unwin.

Medical Dominance: the division of labour in Australian health care, now in a revised edition, provides a fascinating account of the medical profession’s successful domination of a wide range of health care services. Evan Willis delves into the past to explain the existing division of labour and health care, the rise of the medical profession to a position of economic power within the health system, and their defence of that dominant position. Now completely revised and updated, this edition also considers the related question of the policy implications of medical dominance. The defence by doctors of their position of power is highlighted by the author’s exhaustive and original research into demarcation struggles between medicine and other health occupations, in particular midwifery, optometry and chiropractic. Conventional explanations of medical dominance are challenged by the argument that the role of developments in medical knowledge and in technology itself have been overstated. As well, greater account must be taken of the social relations and struggles which developed for control of that knowledge and technology.

The subordination of midwifery: The occupation of midwifery is an ancient one, traditionally a non-medical lay craft practised by women until about the seventeenth century. During the mid-eighteenth century another development occurred which formed part of the strategy of gaining professional male medical control over childbirth. The trend toward male involvement in childbirth met with vigorous opposition from midwives and a flood of polemical literature from the mid-seventeenth century demonstrates the hostility between male and female practitioners. Male-midwives thus challenged established sexual mores concerning body contact. The paradigm of medical knowledge of the time furthermore, stressed reporting of symptoms by the patient rather than clinical examination. In the case of doctors there is a considerable amount of information on who migrated to Australia, but the same is not true of midwives.

Library Resource Guides: Nursing and midwifery history

Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (Vic) Library Resource Guide to nursing & midwifery history