Celebrating carers, advocates and reformers at The Women’s

Drs Ellen Balaam, Annie Bennett and Gweneth Wisewould and a nurse at the Women’s Hospital, c. 1915
Drs Ellen Balaam, Annie Bennett and Gweneth Wisewould and a nurse at the Women’s Hospital, c. 1915, gift of Lois Parr, niece of Ellen Balaam, Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne.

The rich and vibrant history of one of Victoria’s most trusted and loved public institutions is currently being celebrated in a special University of Melbourne Medical History Museum exhibition.

The Women’s: carers, advocates and reformers features an amazing collection of hospital artefacts, medical and scientific equipment, historical photographs, and displays dating back as far as the 1850s.

The exhibition explores the work of the hospital and the changes in clinical care and practice through the contributions of the many remarkable women and men who contributed to the Women’s over the decades.

Displays include ovariotomy instruments owned by hospital co-founder Dr Richard Tracy and used in Australia’s first ovary operation, the record of the first baby born in the hospital, which was sadly stillborn, and 1880s nipple shields.

University of Melbourne Medical History Museum senior curator Jacqueline Healy said the exhibition marks more than 160 years of the hospital’s services to the women of Victoria.

“From its modest beginnings as the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for the Diseases Peculiar to Women and Children in an East Melbourne terrace house, to its evolution as a ground breaking health service for women, the Women’s has always had a focus on women and children who are marginalised or disadvantaged,” Dr Healy said.

“Founded in August 1856, Melbourne was in the midst of a gold rush that left many women abandoned and destitute while their menfolk tried their luck on the goldfields. Many needed urgent medical treatment, particularly when pregnant, and at that time, there was no public health service on offer.

“A committee of women, led by Mrs Frances Perry and two male doctors, were determined to establish a facility that would provide universal health care and treatment for women.”

The exhibition documents the advances in healthcare for women and the hospital’s history advocating for social, legal, educational and policy changes to improve women’s health across the decades.

The rich history of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and practices for pregnancy and childbirth is also acknowledged through contributions by senior Victorian Indigenous women.

Chair of the Women’s History, Archives and Alumni Committee Leslie Reti, said the exhibition was a “treasure to savour”.

“It is a celebration of culture, values, purpose, heritage and of course, history,” Associate Professor Reti said.

“The nature of these exhibits and essays makes them a great primary source for people wanting to discover more about a certain event or era.”

Complementing the exhibition is a glossy publication, The Womens: carers, advocates and reformers comprising photos of the collection and a number of essays exploring the hospital’s history and achievements, advancements in clinical care and practice, fascinating stories about key individuals and landmark legal reforms and advocacy.

Pioneers profiled in the exhibit include:

  • Anglican Archbishop’s wife Frances Perry, who helped set up the hospital and has the private wing named after her
  • Hospital co-founder Dr John Maund, who helped establish the Australian Medical Journal and died at just 35
  • University of Melbourne graduate Dr Margaret Whyte, who became the hospital’s first female resident in 1892
  • Dame Kate Campbell, who graduated as a doctor in 1924, wrote text books and became the first women president of the Australian Paediatric Association in 1965.

The hospital’s long history treating gynaecological conditions, terminations and childbirth complications are also chronicled, including the often tragic consequences of backyard terminations before the procedure was legalised.

The Women's exhibition is free and on Level 2 of the Brownless Biomedical Library and open from 10am-5pm Monday-Friday and 1pm-5pm on Saturdays until Saturday 2 November. More on Pursuit.