In 2017 representatives from the Geoffrey Kaye Museum, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, and Harry Daly Museum joined forces to present a session at the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine (ANZSHM) conference held at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. At the time of the conference, Ari Hunter was a volunteer at the Geoffrey Kaye Museum, and a Museum Studies student at Deakin University.


I attended the 2017 ANZSHM conference as both a speaker and a listener. My particular interest in the history of medicine is around the social relationships and motivations of those involved in the medical profession, both as practitioners and indirectly as recorders of events.

The conference created some real questions around how and why we approach the history of medicine, and what lenses we can use to do this. The overarching theme of ‘Health, Medicine, and Society: Challenge and Change’, presents a way in to the history of medicine that focuses on the people that participated, rather than the grand deeds performed.

The opening plenary from Barbara Mann Wall approached this topic from the perspective of the Catholic missionaries stationed in Africa during the mid 20th Century.  Wall demonstrated to us that the structure of the Catholic Mission Hospital enabled female practitioners access to higher medical training, and enough autonomy to run these hospital organisations, in conjunction with the local people, so that there was a real and lasting effect, both on health and the moral welfare of the community.  The plain fact that there were females in these leadership roles was at odds with what was happening in other parts of the western world. The point was raised that ‘they only let the women deal with medicine in the colonies’, and the wider reaching social and political ramifications of this statement were implied, but left formally unsaid.

Moving through to the first panel session we were presented with a single image and the speaker gave a ten-minute presentation around what the image demonstrated or signified. We heard from Margaret Boult on the importance of the interior of the 19th Century lunatic asylum, from Christine Harrison on the inclusion and the importance of a bedside locker in a mid 20th Century mental health facility, and how this provided patients with a sense of identity and ownership of personal space.  Averyl Gaylor presented on the Mensendieck Principle, that discusses the indivisibility of beauty and health and how this idea permeated through to our modern society through dance.  Finally, Eureka Henrich presented the image of a complete syringe kit that travelled with an Italian post war migrant. This signified that ideas of race, culture and difference that can be held in a single object. These sessions were one of the highlights of the day, and presented an alternative way into each theme.

Other panel sessions throughout the day presented chronological histories of interesting characters – many told with personal experience overlaid onto historical events. Remarkable people such as Natalie Schlusser, who escaped the regime of dictatorship and Anna Petronella Van Heerden, the first Afrikaans speaking woman to become a doctor, came to our attention not just for what they achieved, but for the way they chose to live their lives.

I presented in a joint session with Tilly Boleyn (MAAS, aka the Powerhouse Museum), Rebecca Lush (then of the Harry Daly Museum) and Monica Cronin (Geoffrey Kaye Museum) on Women in the History of Medicine. The theme of any conference is to create discussion and present material that could be used to sway another’s way of thinking.

Our panel session did this. We filled all the seats in our session, and created a space for a long and interesting question and answer session at the end.

Tilly began the session by framing the representation of women in collections, and bringing initiatives from the Guerrilla Girls and Countess into play. She asked questions around how women are represented in various medical and scientific collections around Australia, and how we can aim to change this so that fifty percent of the collection represents fifty percent of the population.

Rebecca broached the subject of the lens we use to research these women, and how imperative it is to understand the bigger picture before narrowing down. She used Fanny Burney’s own account of her mastectomy as an example. It was not until 2010 that the letter was published in its entirety, previously only portions were available, and these without the context of the full letter were open to dubious interpretation.

Monica dived into a survey of the ‘women at the coalface’, and highlighted the fact that this first group of female medical graduates in Australasia by virtue of simply doing their jobs, had overcome hurdles that many of us could not even fathom. Pressures such as social stigma, the difficulty in obtaining residencies, and the public accounts belittling these women published in the newspapers.

My presentation focused on the way we can use the archives of these women to understand the pressures they were faced with, both on a professional and personal level. I used the Gwen Wilson archive to demonstrate this and discussed what I had discovered in the archive, whether it was of value or not, and then how to fit this into a wider narrative of medical women in the mid 20th Century.

The floor opened to questions about the writing of histories of medical women of colour, an understanding of the pressures faced by medical women currently practicing, medical women in military settings, women as patients, and what themes we as historians can bring to the fore in our research.

Finally, for me the real theme of the conference has become taking what was previously implied and unspoken and digging into this further. Looking for primary source material in archives and connecting everything these women did into a larger narrative.