Thankfully in the ongoing endevour to keep my offspring alive I have been assisted by many individuals some of whom are the marvellous freely available maternal and child health nurses here in Australia. In honour of them I thought today we might talk about an Australian doctor who was instrumental in helping to set up that public health service many years ago, Vera Scantlebury-Brown.
Vera Scantlebury was born in 1889 in rural Victoria. Her father was a country doctor, and he and her mother raised all their children to believe in the importance of educational attainment, regardless of sex.
Vera took this message to heart, and went on to excel at Toorak College, and then entered medical school at the University of Melbourne in 1907.
Melbourne University admitted their first seven female students in 1887. Apart from one student who enrolled at Adelaide University in 1886, these were the first seven Australian women to undertake their medical education in Australia. Two of these graduates, Clara Stone and Margaret Whyte have the distinction of being the first two women to be registered as doctors in Australia. Twenty years later when Vera enrolled in the degree, a female doctor was still something of a novelty in this country. When Vera and three other female classmates graduated in 1914 there were only about 140 women in Australia qualified as doctors, compared to about 1,000 of their male counterparts.
However, despite their ever increasing numbers, whilst attainment of a medical degree was becoming more and more possible for a woman, attaining a position of employment was not. Medical residencies were preferentially given to men. Despite this, Vera managed to achieve an appointment as a resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne in 1914, and then at the Children’s Hospital in 1915.
By 1917 close to a third of the Australian medical community had enlisted to serve in the Great War that was raging across Europe. Vera too, felt a strong desire to serve her country, just as three-quarters of her graduating classmates. Unfortunately, as a woman, she was not allowed to do so as a doctor. At the time, it was widely believed that women were too delicate to handle the complexity of war injuries.
With the only option in Australia to enlist as a nurse, Vera chose to take up a position as an Assistant surgeon at the Endell Street military hospital in London, a hospital run and staffed by like-minded women doctors. Then she paid the, at the time, not-insubstantial 129 pound fare to London out of her own pocket. In the process she was also forced to give up her hard-won and much desired residency position. She also left behind the man who would eventually become her husband.
Despite the official advice of the Australian War Memorial, evidence exists to suggest that alongside Vera, at least 18 other Australian women served as doctors in various sites around Europe during the first world war. Alongside their male colleagues, they tackled the horrific injuries suffered on the fields of battle through the use of shrapnel and poison gas, in an era pre-antibiotics, when wounded would often need a week to be transported to hospital. We know from her letters to her parents how difficult and confronting Vera found this work.
On their return to Australia, the male doctors were feted, and rightly so. These male veterans were preferentially given hospital appointments throughout the country partly in thanks for their war service, and in deference to the enormous clinical experience they had obtained during their work overseas.
Despite the fact that they were also war veterans, and also had a wealth of clinical experience, this was not the case for the women.
Vera spent the next few years employed in a variety of honorary appointments around Victoria, unable, like many women of the time, to find permanent employment. She developed a special interest in the health of women and children, and was appalled at what she found. In recognition of this, in 1925, she was asked by the Victorian government to make a study of the welfare of women and children in the state.
In 1925 infant mortality in Australia was 65 per 1,000 live births. In context, this is roughly equivalent to the current infant mortality rate in Pakistan, Tanzania and Swaziland, along with many other third world countries. There was considerable apathy in the community about the problem of infant health, coinciding with disbelief that anything could be done.
After presenting her report Vera was appointed as director of infant welfare in the Department of Health although only part time as being a married woman with two children, any employment, let alone full-time, was considered inappropriate. Despite this, Vera patiently and diplomatically pioneered structured antenatal and post-natal care, significantly expanded the sphere of infant welfare to include older children, instituted compulsory training for nurses working within her community and successfully secured funding for infant welfare clinics.
Her fledgeling department went onto become the first Australian Maternal and Child Health service. In Australia today infant mortality is 3.9 infant deaths for every thousand live births, one of the lowest in the world. This can be attributed in no small part to the actions of this service.
For her work with this program, Vera received an Order of the British Empire in 1938. And this new mother not only stands in awe of her pioneering efforts as a woman in medicine, but is mighty grateful that the service she created exists at all.