New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives

By Barbara Mortimer; Susan McGann | Go to book overview

11

Exploring the maternity archive of the St Helens Hospital, Wellington, New Zealand, 1907-22

An historian and midwife collaborate

Pamela J. Wood and Maralyn Foureur

In response to a growing concern about New Zealand's maternal and infant mortality rates at the beginning of the twentieth century, the 1904 Midwives Act established formal midwifery training and registration, and enabled the setting up of St Helens Hospitals throughout New Zealand. From the establishment of the first four in 1905, these hospitals provided both maternity care for married women whose husbands earned less than £3 a week and a training place for midwives. By 1920, seven hospitals had been set up and, although the criteria for admission changed over time, St Helens Hospitals provided a safe maternity service for New Zealand women for the next seven decades. The hospitals are historically interesting for three main reasons: (i) they provide a very early example of state-subsidized maternity hospitals in the international twentieth-century context; (ii) the majority of births were attended only by midwives and maternity nurses; and (iii) the hospitals led New Zealand on all indices of safe maternity care. 1 St Helens Hospitals were therefore a site of significant development in midwifery practice and maternity services in New Zealand.

The Wellington St Helens Hospital was the first one established, in May 1905. Following the discovery of the records of this hospital in 2000, a detailed analysis is now possible of its birth-related records. The archive comprises fifty-seven volumes, chiefly casebooks, admission books and maternity registers, from 1907 until the hospital's closure in 1980. The archive has two almost continuous runs: the first from 1907 until 1922, the second from 1929 until 1980. These allow a fairly comprehensive analysis of changes in the demographic profile and delivery histories of women who gave birth at St Helens over seven decades. This chapter offers preliminary findings from an analysis of the first run. Although records are incomplete for the years 1907, 1910, 1911 and 1922, the remaining 3,166 records provide an extensive sample and rich source of information. Other primary sources, such as official government reports, offer material to enable the St Helens data to be contextualized.

In addition, this study enables two researchers with differing clinical and research backgrounds to collaborate in a new way. Our differing interests in nursing history, on the one hand, and epidemiology and clinical midwifery, on the other, allow us to address both historical and current clinical issues through information yielded by the archive.

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