5 things we can learn from Dr Constance Stone, Queen Victoria Hospital founder

Dr Constance StoneDr Constance Stone

by Amy Gray

As we threw open the doors for Melbourne Open House on the weekend, we took the opportunity to throw open the history books and learn more about this building’s amazing history and how feminism can truly build something magnificent.

And it all starts with one amazing woman: Constance Stone.

In the 1890s, there was no vote for women, limited job options, less education and success in life depended on which man you married. That was the world Constance lived in and defied.

Along with her husband, Constance wanted to study medicine. Back then, Melbourne University wouldn’t admit women into their medicine course. So she took herself to Pennsylvania and Toronto and came back with a dream to create a hospital staffed with women to help all women in Melbourne.  Constance was certain that specialist and empathetic care from women doctors for women patients was crucial – to provide women with compassionate care.

When Constance came back to Melbourne and became the first woman registered with the Medical Board of Victoria, she immediately reached out to other women doctors and formed the Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS). This professional association became the headquarters to band women together, plan their own career development and help women in the community, and has since become the longest running women’s medical association in the world.

Together, the VMWS immediately set up practice in a hall at the Welsh Church where Dr Constance Stone’s husband was pastor. The women doctor’s faith that women needed their services was proven when 2000 women came for treatment in the first three months. Many of the women patients were unable to pay for treatment, so it was provided free of charge.

Still committed to her vision of hospital for woman, run by women, Dr Stone and the VMWS created the Queen’s Shilling Wall, where all Victorian women were asked to donate a shilling to fund construction of a hospital. The fund helped them build the Queen Victoria Hospital in Mint Place a year later, before they moved to the much larger site where QVWC is located today.

Dr Constance Stone’s story gives us lessons that still ring true today:

  1. Before expecting work from others, work on yourself
    Constance knew that to build her dream of a women’s hospital, she needed to get educated and experienced. Which is exactly what she did.
  2. Go around when you can’t go through
    There are always going to be barriers – in Dr Constance Stone’s case, rampant sexism preventing women from participating in public life and receiving adequate care. She didn’t have time to wait for Melbourne University to start admitting women students, so she went around them and got her education overseas. This is where you weigh up your priorities to decide your best action – in Stone’s case getting Melbourne women access to medical help was greater than getting women into Melbourne Uni, even if the two were connected.
  3. Use your privilege to help others
    Despite the limitations of the day, Dr Constance Stone leveraged the privilege available to her – an understanding and relatively wealthy partner – to get the education and experience she needed so she could help others.
  4. Build it yourself if society won’t
    Dr Constance Stone dreamed of a hospital run by women when women were not even permitted to study medicine, let alone run a hospital. Her dreams transcended the narrow discrimination surrounding her and wanted more than society would even give. So with a group of other educated and committed women, Dr Stone built exactly what society wasn’t going to give – and in the short amount of time she had, she watched it prosper.
  5. Act individually and collectively 
    The history of the Queen Victoria Hospital shows just what can happen when people act individually (like getting an education) and collectively (opening clinics or donating to build a hospital). This was shown again in the 1980s when women in Victoria campaigned to save part of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital from demolition to become today’s QVWC.

Dr Stone and others never wavered from their vision of helping women. This can be seen in their coat of arms we found in the QVWC archives: Pro Feminis, A Feminis (For Women, By Women). Today’s definition of womanhood is more inclusive than it was previously, but the commitment to serve and help all women is something that we should all work towards.

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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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