The History Of The Alexandria Baby Health Clinic

October 7th, 2022 - by Brad Gillespie

The Alexandria Baby Health Clinic was the very first government-run health clinic in New South Wales, opening its doors to mothers and babies over 100 years ago.

While they’re something we now take for granted today for parenting advice and weigh-ins, at the time they were, quite literally, life saving for many babies and children.

Before the baby clinic

Think of a city with many infant deaths during the Victorian era, and you’d probably think of London. But you might be surprised to learn that in the 1880s New South Wales had a higher mortality rate.

Major causes of infant deaths in the state included infectious diseases, diarrhoea, and respiratory issues. Many of these unfortunate deaths were directly related to contaminated drinking water and poor housing conditions.

By the turn of the century, state authorities realised they needed to act. As part of this push, the Royal Hospital for Women was opened in Paddington in 1905, and the Alice Rawson School for Mothers followed in 1908 in Bourke Street, Darlinghurst.

Site of the state’s first clinic

In 1914, Frederick Flowers became the state’s new health minister. That same year, he held a conference that brought together the Alice Rawson School for Mothers, the Sydney District Nursing Association, and numerous government departments.

The conference ended with a commitment to establish baby clinics throughout the city – and the very first would be in Alexandria. The suburb was industrial and working-class, and few in the local community could afford to see a doctor.

During this time, and into the mid-20th century, most poorer women still gave birth at home with a local midwife in attendance or, at best, went to a local “lying-in house” often run by midwives in their own home, like a small private maternity hospital.

The arrival of a baby health clinic must have seemed like a miracle.

The clinic opens its doors

Seeing its first patient on 24 August 1914, the Alexandria Baby Health Clinic operated from a terrace at 22 Henderson Rd. Today it’s a privately owned home, but the terrace had previously been a branch of the Alice Rawson School for Mothers. The clinic took the property, and the adjoining terrace, on a five year lease, for 17/6d per week.

The clinic operated from 9 am until 5 pm each day, with two nurses initially employed. Government documents reveal the clinic’s first nurses were Edith Pike as head nurse, and Nurse Williams as the second nurse – her first name was not given.

One nurse worked within the clinic, attending to the needs of both mothers and babies. Babies were weighed and checked while their mums were given guidance in breastfeeding, along with general hygiene and healthcare for themselves and their child. The second nurse conducted home visits, known as “outdoor work”.

Not just nurses

As well as nurses, doctors also worked at the clinic.

Obstetrician Dr Ludowici saw patients on Tuesday afternoons for two hours, and Dr Margaret Harper – listed as an “honorary physician”, meaning she volunteered – attended every Wednesday afternoon.

Dr Harper had graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1906. Over the course of her career, she would become internationally recognised for her work in paediatrics. She was also a founding doctor for the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, which was initially established in Surry Hills before moving to Redfern.

Better outcomes for babies

After the success of the Alexandria baby clinic, similar health centres quickly opened in other suburbs, such as Newtown, Balmain, Chippendale, North Sydney and Woolloomooloo, with regional centres to follow. Across the six clinics, there were on average of 17.5 visits per day.

The clinics’ success was clear in better health outcomes for children thanks to access to clinic-based healthcare and advice about feeding and looking after infants. Alongside initiatives like the baby clinics, the state government had also put attention towards housing, better sanitation, public parks, and schemes to “grow healthy children” like the School Travelling Hospital and the School Travelling Ophthalmic Clinic.

In 1880, New South Wales sadly recorded 145 infant deaths per 1000 live births; by 1945 that number had dropped to 64.

Today, the Alexandria Early Childhood Health Centre sits on the corner of Park Road and Power Avenue, and serves the area’s parents and infants with as much care as that very first clinic.

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