Monday, 5 June 2017

Establishment of the Cairns Baby Clinic

Cairns Baby Clinic, corner of Florence and Martyn Streets, Cairns, c. 1930.
Photo: Queensland State Archives
In September 1920, Florence Chatfield visited the city of Cairns to make preliminary arrangements for the establishment of a Baby Clinic there. It was during the 1920s that the Queensland Government began building state-run baby clinics in regional Queensland cities, in an effort to try to improve the life expectancy of its youngest citizens. It was hoped that educating mothers about the care of their infants using a standardised system of advice and instruction would help to reduce the infant mortality rate. The government was responding to pressure from a growing nationwide movement, now known as the Infant Welfare Movement.

Nurse Chatfield, who was the Supervisor of the Baby Clinics in Queensland, held two meetings while in Cairns. She spoke to a group of mothers about the potential uses of the clinic; and held a meeting for a general audience (which was no doubt attended by local doctors and nurses as well) where she outlined the scope and objectives of the work of the clinics that were at that time operating in Brisbane. 
Nurse Florence Chatfield.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.
Nurse Chatfield also took a tour of the city, and decided that the Baby Clinic should be sited somewhere in the vicinity of Bunda Street, in order to best serve “the working population” who were located in the area. She was somewhat concerned about the lack of rental accommodation for potential clinic nurses though, so she scouted for cottages that were for sale. Finding that cottages which had the necessary five or six rooms were priced around £900 to £1200 (a sum she considered “prohibitive”, given the need to also pay for alterations to fit them out as a dedicated clinic) she began looking for suitable land.[1]

With the help of the Mayor, Alderman J.G. Hoare, Nurse Chatfield inspected a Railway Reserve which was near Bunda Street, and together they decided that the Home Secretary should be asked to excise a small corner of this Reserve to build a cottage for a Baby Clinic. An area of 23.5 perches (594.3 sq m) at the corner of Florence and Martyn Streets, was eventually excised and officially proclaimed as a “Reserve for Baby Clinic” in March 1924.

Reserve for Baby Clinic (R.613), excised from Railway Reserve  R.280
Queensland State Archives
Most of the regional Queensland clinics were built to a standardised design and built by the Department of Works but the standard design was considered unsuitable for Cairns. There were two reasons for this. First, the tropical climate in Cairns needed to be considered, so the Department of Works designed a timber building set on low stumps, with wrap-around verandahs that were designed to ensure a cool interior. The second reason appears to be that given the “difficulty for a nurse to secure suitable board and residence at reasonable cost”, the building design should include living quarters for a nurse to live on site. When the plans were drawn up, this second consideration seems to have been deemed of little importance, as the original 1923 plans show no living quarters.  

The Cairns Baby Clinic opened to the public on Monday, 7 January 1924, under the care of Sister Mee.[2] Sister Mee was described by the Northern Herald as “a fully qualified nursing practitioner, having considerable experience in Brisbane”.[3] The clinic was open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, and from 9am to 12pm on Saturdays, with a doctor in attendance on Fridays.[4]
Plans for improvements to the Cairns Baby Clinic, 1924.
Queensland State Archives
By late February the clinic was under the management of Nurse Martin,[5] who soon requested that some improvements be made to the building. These included installing louvres to the side verandah, adding a louvred room at the back of the building, and installing a bathroom.[6] Florence Chatfield wrote to the Home Secretary requesting the improvements, but despite the obvious need for basic facilities to be supplied to the staff of the Clinic, the wheels of government were slow. Very slow.

In September 1926, Dr Alfred Jefferis Turner, the Director of the Maternal and Child Welfare Department, took up their cause. He wrote to the Assistant Under Secretary of the Home Department, stating that the nurse at the Cairns Baby Clinic had been supplied with a bathtub, but that it had not been installed, and was in fact, still lying “upside down on the floor of the clinic”.  He stressed that she had been promised a bathroom and a louvred sleeping room on the verandah.[7]

“This nurse is working very hard in a hot climate (133 visits on foot last July in addition to indoor work), and I think she should be provided with reasonable comfort,” Dr Turner wrote.[8]

It’s hard not to want to cheer for Dr Turner for his tenacity and for his belief in the work of the clinic nurses. Nurse Martin finally got her bathtub sometime in the first half of 1927, three years after she first asked for it![9]

Dr Alfred Jefferis Turner.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.

Baby Clinic was well patronised
In March 1926, the Cairns Post reported that between 300 and 500 babies were being seen at the clinic each month:

“This splendid little Government institution is quietly but efficiently doing much to help the great scheme along, of building up a nation of healthy and robust men and women, by giving the wee babies a chance from earliest infancy of being physically well and fit… The great aim of the clinic is to prevent ailment, by examining babies, advising the mothers and prescribing the treatment best suited to each little creature. Mothers are encouraged to bring along the little ones before illness, not after.”[10]

The Cairns Baby Clinic existed at the Martyn Street site until 1955, when the service moved into a new building located in Anzac Memorial Park.

[1] Letter from F. Chatfield to Under Secretary re Cairns visit, dated 18 October 1928, Queensland State Archives (QSA)
[2] Cairns Post 8 January 1924, p. 4
[3] The Northern Herald, 9 January 1924, p. 18
[4] Ibid
[5] Cairns Post 26 February 1924, p. 3
[6] Letter from F. Chatfield regarding Nurse Martin’s requests, dated 28 March 1924, QSA.
[7] Letter from Dr A.J. Turner regarding bath tub not installed, dated 3 September 1926, QSA
[8] Ibid
[9] Letter from Under Secretary and Director of Public Works, dated 12 January 1927. Relevant here is the handwritten notation: “Carry out these works” dated 8.2.27. QSA
[10] Cairns Post, 13 March 1926, p. 12

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