A fascinating exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Medical History Museum shows how far we have come in caring for women’s health since Victoria’s goldrush era.
The Women’s: carers, advocates and reformers exhibition showcases the history of The Women’s hospital since its beginnings in 1856 as the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for the Diseases Peculiar to Women and Children in a terrace house in Albert Street, East Melbourne.
Two years after being established, the hospital moved to Carlton and in 2008 to its current site in Parkville.
The Women’s was founded as a charity lying-in hospital for poor women by a committee of evangelical women led by Frances Perry, wife of the then Anglican bishop of Melbourne, and doctors John Maund and Richard Tracy. It was Dr Tracy who advocated for unmarried women to be admitted to the hospital, against the wishes of the conservative committee.
During the first hundred years of the Royal Women’s Hospital, the main methods of birth control for women were abstinence, withdrawal and abortion – and until the 1970s, many patients were admitted with haemorrhage or infection from unsafe abortions.
At the time of the hospital’s establishment, ‘gold fever’ brought half a million people to Melbourne within a decade and women were abandoned, pregnant and destitute, as their husbands or lovers sought their fortune on the goldfields.
The Medical History Museum’s exhibition curator Dr Jacqueline Healy said what was most striking about the exhibition material was how recently many gains have been made in women’s health, such as the decriminalisation of abortion and IVF treatment.
‘These were hard-fought for changes but then you get to that beautiful midwifery kit (in the exhibition) and you get this sense of the extraordinary continuum of caring for women in the context of changing values,’ Dr Healy said.
A 1997 journal headed ‘Reclaim the Night’ from CASA House – the Centre Against Sexual Assault established at The Women’s in 1987 – is a reminder that the violence that so seriously impacts women’s health has not shifted enough, Dr Healy added.
The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue which includes essays on Aboriginal women’s birthing knowledge and practice by Gunditjmara/Keerray Woorroong artist Dr Vicki Couzens; the search for the cause of the high number of infection-related deaths in childbirth in the 1920s; the education of midwifery and infirmary/gynaecology nurses; advocacy to professionalise nursing and midwifery; fertility treatment; and mental health, to name a few.
The exhibition contains photographs and portraits of those who have been central to the hospital’s development and care for patients, including a Grahame King portrait of nurse Jean Frances ‘Cram’ Crameri who devoted her entire 41-year career to caring for women at the hospital, from 1934 to 1975.
A more recent photograph depicts the hospital’s education program team for family and reproductive rights which includes ANMF (Vic Branch) executive branch council member Marie Jones and member Katie Beveridge.
Displays of birth instruments and contraceptive devices in use throughout The Women’s 163-year history remind us how closely women’s reproductive rights are intertwined with health and survival.
The exhibition includes a portrait of The Women’s bacteriologist Dr Hildred Butler whose processes accelerated the diagnosis and treatment of sepsis incurred during childbirth and as a result of unsterile ‘backyard’ abortions. This saved the lives of countless women.
The exhibition is at the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne (Level 2 of the Brownless Biomedical Library) until Saturday 2 November 2019.