Review: A Heart Undivided

A Heart Undivided is as much about the development of women’s role in medicine as it is about the remarkable Vera Scantlebury Brown (MBBS 1914, MD1924).

Born in 1889 in the small town of Linton, about 150 kilometres west of Melbourne on the Glenelg Highway, the first 27 years of Vera’s life took her from a declining Australian gold-mining town to the operating theatre of a London military hospital.

Vera enrolled in the University of Melbourne’s medical school in 1907 and was a weekly boarder at Trinity College Hostel, now Janet Clarke Hall. In the previous 16 years, just 42 women had graduated from medicine in Victoria. In 1915 she became the first female doctor appointed to the Royal Children’s Hospital in 14 years. From December 1915 until late 1916, Vera and five other women doctors made up the entire medical staff at the Children’s due to wartime resignations. In 1917, Vera left Australia for London where she spent 20 months at Endell Street Military Hospital. At the end of the war, in early 1919, she returned to Melbourne. Her first appointment was as a house surgeon at the Royal Women’s Hospital, followed, in late 1919, by an appointment at the Children’s Hospital as clinical assistant to Dr Wilfred Kent Hughes, an ear, nose and throat consultant, as well as a part-time position of medical officer for the Victorian Baby Health Centre Association. Early in 1920 she became medical officer for the Melbourne City Council’s three baby health centres and for the Free Kindergarten Union’s 26 kindergartens, and medical inspector for Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. To add to the frenetic nature of her work at that time, she also began a private practice at 84 Collins Street, Melbourne.

Vera was appointed director of the newly created Department vernment department in Victoria. Having also married Edward (Eddie) Byam Brown (a lecturer and later an associate professor in electrical engineering at the University of Melbourne) in September 1926, Vera’s position as a middle-class married woman with children holding down the salaried directorship of a government department was an exceptional one.

Among the few women to achieve a position of professional leadership and to shape public policy at both the state and national levels, Vera’s work in nurturing the physical and mental development of children remains at the heart of Victoria’s free and universal maternal and infant health system.

In her Foreword, University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, Professor Fiona Stanley AC, FAA, FASSA, notes, “This book is thoroughly researched and beautifully written…It is such an important book for us to read now. Whilst the rates of death and illness that were common in the early twentieth century have decreased dramatically (due mostly to the preventive strategies that Vera and colleagues implemented across the whole state of Victoria and taken up nationally), we are seeing many problems in our children, youth and families that also demand a community-wide, preventive approach.”

About the author:

Dr Heather Sheard, BComm, GradDipEd, GradDipEdAdmin, MA, PhD

was a secondary school teacher and assistant principal before retiring and completing a master’s thesis on the history of Victoria’s maternal and child health services, subsequently published as All the Little Children: The Story of Victoria’s Baby Health Centres. Her PhD thesis, completed in 2013, is a biography of Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown.
Dr Sheard is currently researching the contribution of Australian women surgeons and medical officers in World War I.