HISTORY OF QUEEN VICTORIA WOMEN’S CENTRE
From 1848 to today
Queen Victoria Women’s Centre
The Queen Victoria Women’s Centre is an iconic building located in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD. It has a long association with community service and promoting the health and interests of women. Here is the story so far.
New colony, new hospital
The Melbourne Hospital opens its doors on the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets.
Following a public campaign and funded equally by the government and the people, it was the city’s only general public hospital for 23 years. Its services were in great demand as the fledgling colony’s fortunes grew and population boomed. By the early twentieth century over one million patients had been born, treated, cured or died at the Melbourne Hospital. But overcrowding, along with almost constant refurbishments, meant that the demand for a new hospital purpose-built to incorporate medical advances and a larger population could no longer be ignored. Despite concerns about the suitability of the site, in 1907 the Edward Wilson Trust donated £100,000 to rebuild the Melbourne Hospital where it stood, cementing its Lonsdale Street location as Melbourne’s medical heart for decades to come.
Pro Feminis A Feminis: for women, by women
The Queen Victoria Hospital opens, ushering in a revolution in women’s medical care.
As the first women's hospital in Victoria, it was also one of only three in the world operated for women, by women. Founded by two sisters Dr Constance and Clara Stone and their cousin Mary Page Stone, the hospital opened in new premises on William Street by appealing to the women of Victoria to support its ‘Shilling Fund’ – just one shilling each would provide enough money to fund their new hospital.
The Queen Vic also served another purpose – to provide training and employment for a small but increasing number of women doctors. These doctors were mostly unwelcome in the Victorian medical establishment, and the new hospital was a radical recognition that they were a necessity to the women of Victoria.
A new hospital for a new century
The foundation stone of the new Melbourne Hospital is laid by Governor Sir John Fuller.
Designed by father-and-son architectural team J.J. and E.J. Clark, the purpose built ‘pavilion’ hospital filled the entire city block bound by Swanston, Lonsdale, Russell and Little Lonsdale Streets. It represented a new era of modern medical treatment for Victorians. In 1913, Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper proclaimed: “No hospital in the world will be able to boast of better conditions for patients, whether as regards [to] housing, up-to-date methods of treatment, or attendance...”
The Argus, 22 July 1913
On the cutting edge
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Research in Pathology and Medicine – known today as WEHI – begins in the Melbourne Hospital’s new pathology department.
To this day, WEHI remains a ground breaking force in medical research, including its support of Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet who won the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
A holistic approach to healthcare
The Melbourne Hospital is the first in Australia to appoint a qualified social worker, Miss Agnes MacIntyre, to undertake patient care alongside doctors and nurses.
On the cusp of the Great Depression and with the Melbourne slums still a huge social problem, the Melbourne Hospital was unique in recognising broader impacts on patient wellbeing. In the Hospital’s 1933 Annual Report the Almoner’s Department reported that: “The effects of economic insecurity, unemployment, social legislation, etc., are perhaps more clearly seen in the out-patient’s department than in any other part of the hospital.’’
March / April 1944
It’s a miracle! The antibiotic era begins
Melbourne Hospital’s first patient receives the new drug that would change the face of modern medicine – penicillin.
One of the night theatre nurses at the time remembers:
“The penicillin was securely stored in the pathology department. After receiving strict instructions on the importance of this miraculous new drug, the terrific cost of it and the great responsibility we had in transporting it safely to the ward, we ventured out at midnight with our torch and the key to the pathology department to collect the drug. The penicillin was in a bottle in a specially labelled box. After the RMO had drawn up the required amount and given the injection wereturned the box and its precious contents safely back to the pathology department. Mission accomplished! We had witnessed the beginning of a new era in antibiotics.”
Melbourne Hospital on the move
By the mid-forties, the Melbourne Hospital is ‘in crisis’ – overcrowded, its balconies are often used as makeshift wards and its facilities substandard.
In 1944, the hospital moved to a modern building in Parkville, where it remains today. After much public debate about what to do with the old Lonsdale Street site, the hospital buildings were briefly inhabited by the Central Hospital, a specialist hospital for cancer, venereal disease and tuberculosis until…
The ladies of Lonsdale Street
Pro Feminis A Feminis! The revolutionary Queen Victoria Hospital moves to Lonsdale Street, giving rise to an association between the site and the women of Victoria that remains to this day.
The transfer of QVH patients from William Street to Lonsdale Street began with eight ambulances and 25 patients and took 24 hours. The first baby was born on 1 March 1947, within 40 minutes of the labour ward being set up!
Men are back in the building
After just ten years in Lonsdale Street, the Queen Vic is Pro Feminis a Feminis no more.
The founders had succeeded in their original aim to provide opportunities for women doctors. Medical schools now included women students, and all public hospitals included women doctors on staff, meaning female graduates no longer had to gravitate to the Queen Vic for work.
Three male doctors were appointed that year, marking the beginning of the transformation of the hospital’s role. By 1965 the Queen Vic became affiliated with Monash University as a General Teaching Hospital and the first group of fifth-year medical students, including men, began travelling to the Lonsdale Street hospital for their clinical training.
Talking the talk
Hedwig Benz, the hospital’s first full-time interpreter, is employed to help staff communicate with the huge increase in post-war migrant patients.
Along with the baby boom, post-war immigration changed the face of Melbourne. From 1956, the number of interpreters employed by the hospital continued to grow, and by 1985, the Queen Vic employed twelve full- and part-time interpreters who spoke fourteen languages between them, reflecting Melbourne’s transformation into a vibrant, cosmopolitan city.
Support for single mothers
The Whitlam Government introduces the single mothers’ pension, marking a revolutionary change in attitude towards unmarried mothers.
Previously, single mothers were provided with little support to care for their children. They were encouraged or coerced into signing adoption papers and, over the preceding decades, an estimated 150,000 newborns were made available for adoption, often illegally and without informed consent.
The Royal Women’s Hospital and the Queen Victoria Hospital dealt with the largest proportion of single mothers in Victoria, and so arguably were the most complicit. After grassroots campaigns across Australia and a Senate Inquiry, apologies have been given on behalf of institutions to the mothers, fathers, children and families.
Family Planning, Pro Choice
The Queen Vic leads the way in providing family planning services.
By the late sixties the Queen Vic was one of only three institutions in Victoria to offer an advisory service, and by 1972, its family planning clinic was the largest in Australia. The hospital supported both family planning and pro-choice considerations in health care and, between 1970 and 1976, increasingly became the focal point for irate anti-abortionist protesters.
We are family
The Queen Vic now treats both men and women of all ages and is affectionately dubbed ‘The Family Hospital’.
With this change in direction came a change in location. In 1973 the Minister for Health announced the Queen Vic would be relocated close to Monash University, serving the rapidly expanding population along Melbourne’s south-eastern corridor.
Support for victims of sexual assault
The Queen Vic leads the way in supporting victims of sexual assault.
In 1977, the Victorian Rape Study Committee was formed after a Victorian public hospital refused to treat a rape victim. The committee decided to fund a 24-hour counselling service to victims of sexual assault. This funding went to the Queen Vic and eventually led to Australia’s first government supported Sexual Assault Centre in 1979, housed in a room off the hospital’s casualty ward.1
Today there are 15 Centres Against Sexual Assault across Victoria, one of which is housed in the QVWC on Lonsdale Street, the sole remaining hospital building.
A centre for women; a battle begins
The Queen Vic finally moves out to Clayton, ultimately becoming the Monash Medical Centre.
Meanwhile, back in Lonsdale Street, debate raged over what to do with the historic Queen Vic Lonsdale Street site. Once it became apparent that the government intended to sell most, if not all of the precinct, activists campaigned government and private buyers to preserve the Queen Vic buildings as a centre for future generations of women. After a prolonged campaign…
The battle is won!
Finally the sale of the Lonsdale Street site is finalised and the future of the women’s centre secured: “the preferred central tower will be refurbished to house the Women’s Group…the future of the Central Tower is now secure and the future of the other two towers will follow in due process”
Office of the Minister for Finance, news release, 11 March 1994.
The Queen Victoria Women’s Centre opens … then opens again
After a $4.7 million restoration, the Queen Victoria Women’s centre opens in the central tower, the last remaining building of the old hospital site. The organisation has its ups and downs over the next two decades: the Centre dissolves in 1998 and reopens in 2005, as the QV retail precinct develops its surrounds.
A landmark and a legacy remains
The Queen Victoria Women’s Centre today is an iconic Melbourne landmark. It houses organisations that support and empower women and is a vibrant hub that promotes community through cultural activities. Over a century on, it remains true to its founding motto: by women, for women.