May Yarrowick trained as a midwife at Crown St Women’s Hospital in 1906-07.
“Her significance is that she appears to be – by many decades – the first identified Aboriginal woman to gain a formal qualification in midwifery.”
It is believed that May’s grandmother was of the Yarrowick (or Yarrowyck) tribe, and was in Bundarra, in the New England areas of NSW, when she went into labor. Her labor became obstructed, and she was left behind by the tribe on a property owned by the Broun & Kelly families. Apparently someone was able to free the baby’s arm, and her daughter Margaret (Peg) was born.
May’s mother Peg stayed with the Kelly family “torn between two cultures”. At the age of 16, Peg died while giving birth to May. May was brought up and educated by the Kelly family, who gave her the surname Yarrowick, after her tribe. May’s descendants confirm that she is said to be the illegitimate child of one of the Kelly sons.
In 1906, aged 30, May applied to train as a midwife at Crown Street hospital, Sydney. Matron Hannah McLeod (Crown Street’s first Matron) took her application to the Board, as it presented her “a dilemma” – no doubt because of the attitude to Aboriginal people at that time. The Board members decided that “the fact of her being a half caste was not a valid ground for refusing to train her as a nurse”, however, no other trainee be asked to share a room with her. Fortunately for May, a shortage of trainees ensured a single room was available. Her expenses while training in Sydney were paid for by one of the Kelly sons, who was living in Sydney at the time.
In April 1907, May was one of the 6 trainees who passed their training. There was 1 who failed. May had witnessed 50 births, achieved 65% in her oral exam, a satisfactory+ in obstetrical knowledge, and a ‘good’ in practical work and general character. She barely passed her written exam: a reflection of girls’ formal education – particularly in science – being generally poor at the time. She was one of 3 trainees noted to be ‘untidy in their personal neatness’.
May would have faced the intense racism of the time, and so she would also had to have been resilient and courageous, with great personal integrity. The blatant racism in society generally was reflected in much of Crown Street’s history, particularly in its early history. The hospital didn’t show any particular pride in May’s achievements, the very fact of which essentially became lost. The only record of May training at Crown Street is in the Board minutes, which the author Judith Godden discovered by chance when researching her book Crown St Women’s Hospital: A history 1893 – 1983, from which this profile was written.
After successfully completing her training, May registered with the Australian Trained Nurses Association (ATNA) and worked as a private midwife, returning to live on the Broun property near Bundarra from 1919-1940.
What was also unique about May was that she provided care to all members of the local community, not only Aboriginal women, and in her later life saved the life of one of the women of the Broun family who haemorrhaged in childbirth. Oral history indicates that she was
“a courageous pioneer and was very conscious of maintaining her dignity”.
May passed away aged 73 and is buried in Bundarra cemetery next to Martin Kelly (1801-1878) and Catherine Laughlin (1820-1910), her presumed grandparents. Her headstone is inscribed “Nurse May Yarrowick A.T.N.A.’ indicating her justifiable pride in her achievement. Sadly, there is no known photograph of May.