Prof Odette Best has received an Australian Research Council grant to investigate the histories of Aboriginal Queensland women who trained as nurses or midwives from the 1890s to 1950s (Photo: USQ)

October 16, 2020

An investigation into the hidden histories of Aboriginal nurses and midwives is the focus of a new research project being led by University of Southern Queensland historian Prof Odette Best.

Prof Best – a Registered Nurse – has been granted $116,000 to research the untold stories of Aboriginal Queensland women who trained as nurses or midwives from the 1890s to 1950s.

The funding, announced on Wednesday by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan, is part of the Australian Research Council’s Special Research Initiative scheme which focusses on society, history and culture.

The three-year study is USQ’s first Indigenous-led ARC project and aims to address an important gap in Australian history.

While Indigenous nurses and midwives who trained and worked in the 1950s are celebrated as pioneers in the professions, Prof Best believes there had been many Aboriginal women who trained prior to the 1950s in nursing and midwifery.

“The notion that Aboriginal women only started to be trained as Registered Nurses from 1950s is absolutely incorrect,” she said.

“During the 1950s the policy of assimilation came into play in Australia, which made it easier, but still difficult for Aboriginal women to enter hospitals to be nurses and midwives.

“Prior to that, though, there is little knowledge about Aboriginal women who trained as nurses, but through my PhD I uncovered an Aboriginal woman by the name of May Yarrowyck who qualified as a midwife in 1906 at Crown Street Hospital in Sydney.

“I also found Aboriginal women who trained as nurses in the 1920s, including one who worked as a nurse on the ambulance trains in Belgium and France during World War I.”

Prof Best has spent the past 16 years researching and documenting the contribution of Aboriginal women to the nursing and midwifery professions.

She and fellow chief investigator Prof Tracey Bunda, from the University of Queensland, will undertake 13 community visits across Queensland, where they will meet with local Elders, pore though archives and conduct interviews.

“It’s incredibly important for everyone to know this history, not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” Prof Best said.

“The significance for Indigenous communities is it’s a chance for their families’ stories to be told and for these women to finally be acknowledged and recognised.

“I hope this research will also change the public’s perception that before 1950, Aboriginal women were without agency or qualification, and were assigned to a life as just domestics.”

Prof Best said the project was timely as 2020 was the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighting the importance of critical healthcare workers.

“It is quite possible that one of the Aboriginal nurses we uncover may have nursed in the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, of the 1920s,” she said.


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