Dr Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon
No records appear to have survived of the pioneering work in training midwives carried out at St Helens Hospital in Dunedin. The St Helen’s Hospitals provided early women doctors with a secure base and regular salary which was sometimes hard to achieve in general practice. Dr Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon wrote the following account of its initial years, which were subject to controversy. The account was retrieved from a storage box at the Dunedin Pioneer Women’s Hall by historian-in-residence Rachael Fraser, and edited for publication on Corpus by Dr Barbara Brookes.
Liberal Premier, Richard John Seddon established the first State Maternity Hospital in Wellington in June 1905 and called it St. Helens Hospital after the town of his birthplace In England. The hospitals were to cater for working men whose wives earned less than £4 per week and were to provide training for state-registered midwives, under the 1904 Midwives Registration Act.
Dunedin was the next city to be favoured with a St Helens Hospital. Seddon appointed Dr. Emily Siedeberg the Medical Superintendent and asked her to find a suitable building.
Alterations were made to the chosen house of Mr Maurice Joel in Regent Street. The large billiard room upstairs made an excellent ward capable of accommodating eight beds, and other smaller wards brought the total accommodation to 14 beds. The house was beautifully situated on a rise with a glorious view over town, harbour and ocean, and close to the main city tram.
As soon as news of the training hospital for midwives was published in the press, an outcry from the medical men connected with the Medical School arose. Medical students, they insisted, must be trained, and their training was just as important as that of nurses. Seddon, however, was adamant that St Helens should be for midwifery training. As a compromise, he promised monetary help to the Otago Hospital and Charitable Aid Board to convert the old Refuge into a maternity hospital for the training of students.
The Dunedin St Helens opened on September 30th 1905, and the first baby was born on October 2nd, to a Mrs Alderton. The first matron was Miss Alice Holford who had been trained at the Women’s Hospital Sydney, and the first submatron was Miss Trott, trained and certificated in England. The latter remained only a short time, and Miss Marion Gow was appointed in her place. The first nurse trainee was Miss Leilah Gordon. Miss Holford and Miss Gordon continued in office for 23 and 24 years respectively and much of the success of the Hospital was due to their unremitting attention to the mothers and babies.
In those days matrons and nurses did not work in strict accordance with hours on and off duty. They were always on duty when a mother’s or infant ‘s condition required it, even if it meant the sacrifice of pleasures arranged for, or hours of sleep to be given up.
An antenatal clinic was started at once, the Superintendent recognising that it was necessary to guard a prospective mother’s health throughout her whole pregnancy, and to be prepared for difficulties which might be encountered in labour. This was the first antenatal clinic started in the Dominion. Held at first in a small cottage in front of the hospital, one afternoon in the week, patients who attended with any toxic symptoms, anaemia or signs of ill-nourishment were admitted to the hospital for treatment.
The first nurses trained at St Helens received practical instruction in the care of premature or delicate infants who were kept in the hospital sometimes for several weeks after the mother had left. The nurses were instructed in the preparation of ‘humanized milk’ and of other proprietary roods. Once the Karitane Hospital opened in December 1907, delicate babies were cared for there.
St Helens introduced other innovations such a postnatal check at six weeks to examine new mothers for any possible ailments following labour which might require treatment. ‘Maternity Outfits’ were another innovation whereby the Hospital sterilised, for the small sum of 2/6, complete maternity outfits for any mother in Dunedin who was being attended by her own private doctor.
As medical students were increased in numbers, and the General Medical Council of Great Britain increased the number of maternity cases students were to attend from six to twenty, it became increasingly difficult, indeed impossible to complete their training at the old Forth St Refuge now renamed the Batchelor Hospital.
Pressure was brought to bear on the Government to have students admitted to all the St. Helens Hospitals which were now established in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. After protracted negotiations they were finally admitted at Dunedin in 1919. Patients were to have the right to object, if they so desired.
Mrs Mary Stuart, one of Seddon’s daughters, complained in 1930 that ‘converting St Helens to the use primarily of students is striking a blow at the very dignity of motherhood’. The voices of women, however, were drowned out by the loud calls of the medical profession for exclusive access, those deep voices eventually won the day.
Memoir by Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon, edited by Barbara Brookes. Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
Reference: Charlotte M. Parkes, ‘The Impact of the Medicalisation of New Zealand’s Maternity Services on Women’s Experience of Childbirth, 1904-1937,’ in Linda Bryder ed. A Healthy Country: Essays on the Social History of Medicine in New Zealand. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1991), pp.165-180