In the late 1930s and 1940s, Associate Professor of Engineering, Edward Brown, his doctor wife Vera, and their children Edward and Catherine, were able to enjoy holidays in their weekend home in Haven Street, Somers. As to why this could be of interest to Somers residents eighty years later has been brought about by a recent news item, ‘Victorian women doctors recognised for WWI effort’. It described how six Melbourne women previously unrecognised for their work as doctors during World War I, will finally have their contributions acknowledged. A plaque honouring their work has been installed at Melbourne’s Welsh Church.
One of these doctors was Vera Scantlebury Brown, who would have had much need of the peace and quiet in the seaside at Somers. Vera was born in 1889 in the Victorian country town of Linton, where her father was the local doctor. With her decision to study medicine, and with the help of her parents, she enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne and qualified in 1913. At that time in Australia there were 140 female doctors and approximately 1,000 male doctors. Vera was appointed the Senior Resident Medical Officer at the Children’s Hospital from 1915 to 1917, at which time close to a third of the Australian medical community had already enlisted. Vera also was determined to serve her country. She paid her own way (£129) to England in 1917 and was given a position as assistant surgeon at the Endell Street Military Hospital in London despite the prevailing belief, at the time, that women were too delicate to handle the complexities of war injuries. This hospital had been established by the suffragettes, but came under the Royal Army Medical Corp. Vera carried out many operations over the two years that she was there. The hospital had 570 beds; a staff of female surgeons, nurses and orderlies attended to 26,000 patients suffering from the most hideous injuries and the effects of poison gas.
On her return to Australia Vera and other female doctors found that the male doctors were given preference for hospital appointments, but she was able to obtain the position of resident medical officer at the Women’s Hospital and a number of honorary appointments.
Vera developed a special interest in the health of women and children and was appalled in what she found. In 1924 she travelled to the USA, Canada and New Zealand to study their infant welfare systems. In 1926 the Victorian Government asked her and associate Dr Henrietta Main to make a study of the welfare of women and children. It is hard to believe now, but at this time, the infant mortality rate was 65 per 1000 live births, which is the current rate in third world countries like Pakistan and Swaziland.
Vera was appointed as the director of infant welfare in the Department of Health. But as a mother with two infant children she could only be employed on a part-time basis. Despite this limitation, Vera very patiently and diplomatically pioneered structured antenatal and postnatal care, expanding this to include older children. She then instituted compulsory training for nurses employed in this field and successfully secured funding for infant welfare clinics. I remember my wife taking our children over to the Somers Preschool Centre where there was a room dedicated for use by the visiting nurse.
Her department was the first Australian Maternal and Child Health service and would have been instrumental in the lowering of the mortality rate to its present 3.9 infant deaths per thousand live births, which is one of the lowest in the world. In 1938 the Australian Association of Pre-school Child Development was established together with the Lady Gowrie Child Centres. The splendid work carried out in these centres in all states was largely the result of Dr Scantlebury Brown’s efforts. In the same year her work was acknowledged with an OBE.
Finally, in 1944 she added preschools to the Dept of Infant Welfare responsibilities.
Vera with brother, Cliff, in London 1918. Photo by courtesy of Catherine
Sadly Vera passed away in 1946 from cancer, after a life time dedicated to the care of others and in particular that of mothers and children. Today we accept the fact that mothers and their children are so well cared for without a thought of the work done by such people as Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown.
In 1946, the Vera Scantlebury Brown Child Welfare Memorial Trust was initiated as an annual travelling scholarship. In 2016 it will provide up to $6,000 for female applicants working in the areas of prenatal, children and family health and well being. I feel sure that Vera would have been well pleased by this assistance for young women intending to work in the area to which she dedicated most of her career.