It’s July, so that means AHA conference time and this year it’s some 100 kms away in chilly Ballarat- ye Gods, could there possibly be a more dismal place than Ballarat on a wet, rainy Tuesday in July? The theme of the conference is “From Boom to Bust” – a fitting theme for a gold-rush town- and some papers have taken it up in their titles.
Now that the thesis no longer looms over me, I have the luxury of just going to whatever takes my fancy. As it happens, for the first session for the day it was ‘Medical Histories’. The first paper, by Kate Irving was titled “American ‘Schools for Idiotic Children’: Eugenic Asylums and the Limits of ‘Boom to Bust’ Narratives. The ‘Boom to Bust’ narrative arc is often used by medical disability historians to describe the trajectory of institutionalization. Up until the mid 19th century, there was a view that the catch-all term ‘idiocy’ was a permanent condition, manifested through physical appearance with an emphasis on speech. There was a change mid-century, particularly through the work of Seguin, who saw such children as educable, their condition caused by “arrested development of the will”, amenable to physiological education and carefully structured instruction. However, by the end of the century, separate schools were used for predominantly custodial purposes of keeping ‘dangerous’ young people locked away from society, with the smaller education-based schools taken over by large, more segregated institutions with more of an emphasis on science. While not rejecting this ‘boom-to-bust’ characterization completely, Irving noted that there is no neat dichotomy between the three phases, and argued that local, social and personal factors also played a part in the construction of medical categories over time. Her work looked at the clinical notes about the children written by staff at Elm Hill Private Institution for Feeble Minded Youth in Massachusetts, a private institution patronized by wealthy families. Her presentation was illustrated by the studio photographs taken of the children in Elm Hill’s care, which were not at all the custodial-type pictures you might have expected to see.
Next up was ‘The World May See your Trade in your Faces: Labour and the Face in Early Modern Medicine’ by Emily Cock as part of her postdoc work funded by the Wellcome Trust called ‘Effaced from History: The Disfigured and their Stories from Antiquity to the Present Day’. Her paper looked at a publication by Bernardo Ramazzini published in 1700 that classified the diseases and injuries common amongst particular trades e.g. the bleary features of the sweaty blacksmith; the disfigured mercury miner suffering from the fumes; the weedy academic reading too much! The book was organized by trade, with men’s and women’s work intermingled. She noted the facial slashes meted out to prostitutes and adulterers as punishment, and the role of facial injuries as evidence of military service and the ‘safety’ denoted by the smallpocked nursemaid who could no longer transmit the disease to children. An amazingly early example of what would become occupational health and safety consciousness in the early 18th century!
Finally, Yorick Smaal spoke on ‘Boys and Institutional Sexual Abuse’- a topic that is being aired by the current Royal Commission. His paper drew on four cases studies from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom from the early 1900s. His paper started with the Stoke Industrial School Inquiry in New Zealand in the 1890s where the Marist Brothers were investigated. Although the Inquiry found that there was no case to answer, criminal charges were laid against the brothers the following year. Although they were all acquitted, it showed that the state could (however rarely) intervene, and in fact there were 15000 cases over 50 years where parents took up the complaints of their children. For institutionalized children without adult advocates however, there was less opportunity for redress. Often the internal inquiries set up by the institutions themselves were more concerned with protecting the reputation of the organization (sounds familiar?)
After lunch I returned to more familiar ground of frontier encounters. In a room too small for the numbers Mark Dunn started with ‘Civilised or Savage: the Colonial Legacy of Robert and Helenus Scott.’ These two brothers, who arrived in NSW in 1823, were left fatherless when their father died on the voyage but their family’s networks ensured that they soon met with the Governor, befriended John Macarthur and were the recipients of adjacent land grants on the Hunter River that they combined to establish Glendon, which still stands today. Robert Scott (who seems to have been the more dominant of the pair) engaged aboriginal guides to locate their grant, assist in collecting artefacts for dispatch to patrons and friends overseas, and to work on their station. Yet Robert Scott also led a posse of settlers to search for indigenous groups accused of attacking stations, and was highly visible in defending the settlers in the Myall Creek massacre- so visible that he was dropped as a magistrate afterwards. Working with the extensive archive of Scott family correspondence, Dunn is hoping to explore the complexity of the Scott families relationship with indigenous people.
Next was Leonie Stevens with her fascinating work on the Flinders Island Chronicle,a handwritten newspaper created by two Van Diemen’s Land indigenous youths, Thomas Brune and Walter George Arthur during the exile on Flinders Island between 1836-7. The Chronicle has been dismissed as being of little interest or merely a Christianizing propaganda tool under the control of George Augustus Robinson. However, in her paper ‘The Contaminated Gaze: Misrepresenting and Re-Presenting the Flinders Island Chronicle’, Stevens returns to the source document and, in Greg Dening’s words, gives the past back its present tense. She points out that Christianity is only part of what was written about and that the Chronicle also wrote about present events, people and what people were doing. Instead of a passive, ‘weeping in silence’, the Chronicle was a cacophony of action, part of a longer campaign of writing amongst the Van Diemens Land people.
The final paper for this session was Imogen Wegman, who gave a lively presentation about surveyors in Tasmania – surely a documentary program will soon snap up such an engaging young historian? The first surveys were conducted in Tasmania in 1803 by Harris, who was accused of corruption and incompetence, especially when the land was re-surveyed some years later by professional surveyors. The anomalies, however, were not rectified. Her methodology uses big data and the Historical Geographic Information Systems to give a spatial reference- a different type of analysis to the close-up use of land grant documents previously used. It interested me that, in spite of the wealth of information and ‘grunt’ that such methodologies offer, she is still not absolutely sure how the surveying was done: did the settler go with them when they surveyed? Did the settler use a sketch and say ‘I want that land’? Yet another example where often the sources are silent on processes that were self-evident at the time and completely opaque today.
Panel: ‘The Fortunes of women?’: life, death and loss in reproduction in Australia 1850-1970
The final session for the day ran chronologically, tracing through women, childbirth and loss in three papers.
Madonna Grehan’s paper was “‘A piteous tale of human suffering: having a baby at home in nineteenth century Australia 1850-1880”. As became clear in the questions after her presentation, the parallels she draws between 19th century maternal deaths and the current push for ‘physiological’ home-births are quite deliberately politically targeted. She is a historian, nurse and midwife and the issue is of more than academic interest to her. Drawing on 300 maternal death investigations, the poignant reports of women ‘In articulo mortis’ (in the jaws of death) or ‘Angor Animi’ ( convinced that they are about to die) was starkly illustrated by the testimony of husbands, families and others, unable to help these women who died giving birth at home. Sixty-one percent of the women she studied died from haemorrhage either during or after birth. There’s an interesting article in Provenance that picks up on many of the themes in her presentation and I also very much enjoyed her A.G.L. Shaw lecture on birth and death statistics that you can hear as a podcast.
Next, Dot Wickham examined the local Ballarat Female Refuge in her paper ‘Fallen Doves: Single Women and Their Babies 1891-1921′. As with Grehan’s paper before her, she started with a story- in this case, that of Rhoda Shute who knocked on the door of the Ballarat Female Refuge, had her child, and remained there for two years suffering most probably from what we would now called PND, before being committed to the lunatic asylum, with her child taken from her. The refuge was established in 1867 by a group of 26 women, located 5 km from the lying-in hospital at the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum- a journey that the women had to walk themselves in labour when cab trips were curtailed. Her work is an analysis of the admissions registers and doctor’s books over 30 years from 1890 to 1920. The doctors’ notes are sometimes terse and judgmental, but there are other entries that are sympathetic and overwhelming concerned with the welfare of the child. She finished her paper by returning to Rhoda Shute, who returned to live with her brothers and never married.
The final paper for the session, and for the day, was Judith Godden’s paper “Boom to Bust in Adoption: The Case of Crown Street Women’s Hospital” which looked at forced adoptions at Crown Street (Sydney) between 1950s and 1970s. The hospital was founded in 1893 with a strong social conscience, but soon became known as an overcrowded baby factory. Her statistical work on the records note a slippage between the wide definition of ‘single mother’ which included widows, women who had a child through adultery or women from asylums, and a narrow definition of a ‘single mother’ as a never-married, unsupported woman. She highlighted the significance of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1971 which led in a decrease of children ‘given up’ from 48% in 1971 to 7% in 1980. Her presentation highlighted the cruelty of forced adoption: the pillow held up to obscure the view, the belief that if a mother did not hold her child then she would not grieve it, and the heavy drug schedule given to mothers (although she pointed out that all women received drugs during and after birth). And at that point, I had to leave to come home…….
[These summaries are written from my scribbled notes and the abstracts in the conference handbook. If I’ve misrepresented your presentation, please let me know. [residentjudge at gmail]