Research Article| Volume 35, ISSUE 5, e409-e420, September 2022

Looking back moving forward: The history of midwifery in Western Australia

Published:November 01, 2021DOI:



      To date there is has been very little research into midwifery in Western Australia (WA), therefore this paper addresses a significant gap in the literature. The aim of this paper was to gain insight into the history of midwifery in WA.


      Since the beginning of recorded history midwives have assisted women in childbirth. Midwifery is recognised as one of the oldest professions; midwives are mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, featured on Egyptian papyrus and in The Bible. Up until the seventeenth century childbirth was the responsibility of midwives, but the gradual emergence of barber-surgeons, then man-midwives and obstetricians heralded a shift from women-led and community-supported birth to a patriarchal and medical model. Throughout the twentieth century childbirth practices in the Western World have continued to change, leading to a move from midwifery-led care at home to doctor-led care in the hospital.


      The first non-Indigenous Australian midwives were not formally trained; they came on ships bringing convicts to Australia and are described as ‘accidental’ midwives, as assistance in childbirth came from whoever was available at the time. This period was followed by what was called the ‘Aunt Rubina’ period where older married women helped younger women in childbirth. Throughout the early 1800s untrained or ‘lay’ midwifery care continued alongside the more formally trained midwives who had arrived with the colonists.
      From the early 20th century, when birth moved into the hospital, midwives in WA have been incorporated into the hierarchy of the professions with obstetrics as the lead profession and midwifery considered a speciality of nursing. The role of the midwife has been subordinated, initially controlled by medicine and then incorporated into the institutions and nursing. The increase in legislative and training requirements for midwives throughout Australia and the move from home to the hospital, gradually led to the decrease in autonomous midwives working within the community, impacting women’s choice of birth attendant and place of birth.


      The historical suppression of midwifery in Australia has impacted the understanding of the role of the midwife in the contemporary setting. Understanding the development and evolution of the midwifery profession in Australia can help future directions of the profession.


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Women and Birth
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • Howell M.C.
        • Prevenier W.
        From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods.
        Cornell University Press, New York2001
        • Lewenson S.B.
        • McAllister A.
        Learning the historical method: step by step.
        in: De Chesney M. Nursing Research Using Historical Methods, Qualitative Designs and Methods in Nursing. Springer Publishing Company, New York2015: 1-22
        • Lusk B.
        Historical methodology for nursing.
        J. Nurs. Scholarsh. 1997; 29: 355-359
        • McAllister A.
        • Lewenson S.B.
        Inside track of doing historical research: my dissertation story.
        in: De Chesnay M. Nursing Research Using Historical Methods, Qualitative Designs and Methods in Nursing. Springer Publishing Company, New York2015: 41-58
        • Lewenson S.B.
        Doing historical research.
        in: Lewenson S.B. Krohn Herrmann E. Capturing Nursing History: A Guide to Historical Methods in Research. third ed. Sage, Los Angeles2008: 25-44
        • Barclay L.M.
        A feminist history of Australian midwifery from colonisation until the 1980s.
        Women Birth. 2008; 21: 3-8
        • Thornton A.
        The past in midwifery services.
        Aust. Nurses J. 1972; 1 (Royal Australian Nursing Federation): 19
        • Grehan M.
        Heroes or Villains? Midwives, Nurses, and Maternity Care in Mid-nineteenth Century Australia.
        (May 22nd. Available from:) The Free Library, 2009
        • Potter L.E.
        Weaving the Threads: a Tapestry of Sydney’s Colonial Midwives, 1788 – 1901 [PhD].
        University of Sydney, 2015
        • Summers A.
        “For I Have Ever so Much More Faith in Her Ability As a Nurse”: the Eclipse of the. Community Midwife in South Australia 1836–1942.
        Flinders University of South Australia, 1995
        • Davies R.A.
        She Did What She Could: a History of the Regulataion of Midwifery Practice in Queensland 1859–1912 [PhD].
        Queensland University of Technology, 2003
        • Stannage C.T.
        The People of Perth: a Social History of Western Australia’s Capital City.
        Carroll’s for Perth City Council, Perth1979
        • Cohen B.C.
        A History of Medicine in Western Australia.
        University of Western Australia, Nedlands1975
        • Forster F.M.C.
        Progress in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Australia.
        John Sands Pty. Ltd., Sydney, Australia1967
        • McKenzie B.
        Place and Power: A History of Maternity Service Provision in Western Australia, 1829–1950 [PhD].
        Murdoch University, 2015
        • Thorogood C.
        Politics and the Professions: Homebirth in Western Australia [PhD].
        Murdoch University, Perth2001
        • Cowan P.A.
        Faithful Picture: the Letters of Eliza and Thomas Brown at York in the Swan River Colony 1841–1852.
        Fremantle Arts Centre Express, Fremantle, Western Australia1977
        • Martyr P.
        Paradise of Quacks: an Alternative History of Medicine in.
        Macleay Press, Australia. Sydney, Australia2002
      1. Medical Registration Act 1858 (British Government) Chapter 90.
        • Hansford-Miller F.
        A History of Medicine in Western Australia 1829–1870: Volume Nine. Women’s Medical Problems in Early Colonial Western Australia.
        ABCADO, Perth, Western Australia1995
        • The Western Australian Govenrment
        Government Gazette.
        • Quartly M.
        Aveling M. Westralian Voices: Documents in Western Australian Social History/Editor: Marian Aveling. University of Western Australia Press for the Education Committee of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations 1979, Nedlands, W.A1979
        • Hansford-Miller F.
        A history of medicine in Western Australia 1829–1870: volume three.
        The Grim Reality of Life for the Early English Settlers of Western Australia 1829–1850. ABCADO Publishers, Willeton, WA1990
        • Russo G.
        A Friend Indeed: Louisa Clifton of Australind WA.
        Vanguard Press, Perth, WA1995
        • Pierssene H.
        The Western Australian Directory.
        Perth City Press, Perth1894
        • Mrs Gaunt midwifery services
        The Perth Gazette May 8, 1..
        • Mrs McNee
        The Perth Gazette.
        (Friday 29 May 1863.)1863
      2. To the Ladies of Perth and Its Vicinity the Inquirer and Commercial News. May 13, 1863.
        1863 (|||l-decade=186|||sortby=dateDesc)
      3. Mrs Gaunt House Move. The Inquirer and Commercial News. 13th December 1865.
        1865 (|||l-decade=186|||sortby=dateDesc)
      4. Mrs Gaunt House Move advert. The Inquirer and Commercial News. 23rd December 1863.
        1863 (
        • Flanagan M.
        Lying-in (or maternity) homes in Western Australia from about 1860–1960.
        J. R. West. Aust. Hist. Soc. 1997; 11: 338-353
        • Hobbs V.
        But Westward Look: Nursing in Western Australia 1829-1979.
        University of Western Australia, Nedlands1980
        • Durlacher Mr Alfred
        Colonial Secretary’s Office Inward Correspondence. State Record of Western Australia Acc 51/6 & 7 (1829–1878); 5th April 1856.
      5. Sentence-3 Years’ Penal Servitude Louisa Lund the Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth WA: 1855–1901).
      6. General Intelligence, Infanticide, Mary Allen. Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News. Friday 23rd September 1859 Friday 23rd September 1859.
        • Davison C.L.
        Looking Back and Moving Forward: A History and Discussion of Privately Practising Midwives in Western Australia [PhD].
        Curtin University, 2020
        • Health Report
        The Western Australian Times.
        (21st March 1876.)1876
        • Willis E.
        Medical Dominance.
        Allen & Unwin, North Sydney1989
        • Appleyard R.T.
        Western Australia: Economic and Demographic Growth, 1850–1914.
        University of Western Australia Press, Perth1981
        • Turner B.S.
        • Samson C.
        Medical bureaucracies: the hospital, the clinic and modern society.
        in: Turner B.S. Medical Power and Social Knowledge. Sage Publications, London2021: 153-166
        • Cody L.F.
        Living and dying in Georgian London’s lying-hospitals.
        Bull. Hist. Med. 2004; 78: 309-348
        • Versluysen M.
        Midwives, medical men and’ poor women labouring of child’: lying-in hospitals in eighteenth-century London.
        in: Roberts H. Women, Health and Reproduction. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London1981: 18-49
        • Donnison J.
        Midwives and Medical Men: A History of Inter-professional Rivalries and Women’s Rights.
        Heinemann Educational Books, London1977
      7. Baby Farming. The Western Australian Times.
        1907 (Tuesday 16 April 1907.)
      8. State Children Act, (WA) No. 31 of 1907.
        • Freidson E.
        The futures of professionalisation.
        in: Stacey M. Reid M. Heath C. Dingwall R. Health and the Division of Labour. Croom Helm, London1977: 14-40
        • Freidson E.
        Viewpoint: sociology and medicine: a polemic.
        Sociol. Health Illn. 1983; 5: 208-219
        • Lewis M.J.
        Medicine in colonial Australia, 1788–1900.
        Med. J. Aust. 2014; 201: 5-10
        • Hunt S.-J.
        • Hunt G.
        Cleansing the dunghill: water supply and sanitation in Perth 1878–1912.
        Stud. West. Aust. Hist. 1978; 2: 1-17
        • Connerton W.
        • D’Antonio P.
        International comparisons: the nursing and midwifery interface.
        in: Borsay A. Hunter B. Nursing and Midwifery in Britain Since 1700. Palgrave Macmillan, UK2012: 177-204
        • Purcal N.K.
        The politics of midwifery education and training in New South Wales during the last decades of the 19th Century.
        Women Birth. 2008; 21: 21-25
        • Summers A.
        The lost voice of midwifery: midwives, nurses and the nurses registration act of South Australia.
        Collegian. 1998; 5: 16-22
      9. Maternity Allowance Act No. 8 of 1912 (Commonwealth of Australia).
        • Lake M.
        State socialism for Australian mothers: Andrew Fisher’s radical maternalism in its international and local contexts.
        Labour Hist. 2012; 102: 55-70
      10. Medical Journal of Australia. Editorial.
        Med. J. Aust. 1915; 13: 151
        • Selby W.
        Motherhood in Labour’s Queensland 1915–1957 [PhD].
        Griffiths University, Queensland1992
      11. The Health Act (WA) of 1911 Version 16-a0-01 As at 06 Dec 2013. Sect. Part XI 252–264.
      12. The Government Gazette, Midwives Regulation Board, Section E. Supervision and Restrictions within Due Limits the Practice of Midwives.
      13. Nurses Registration Act (WA) 1921 Nurses Registration 12° GEO. V., No. XLI. No. 7 of 1922.
      14. Nurses Registration Act Amendment Act (WA) 8° Gno. VI., No. XIV. Sect. 14.
        • McCalman J.
        Sex and Suffering: Women’s and a Women’s Hospital: The Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne 1856–1996.
        Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria1998
        • Carter J.
        • Carter B.
        King Eddies: a History of Western Australia’s Premier Women’s Hospital 1916–2016.
        King Edward Memorial Hospital Alumni, Subiaco2016
        • Fahy K.
        An Australian history of the subordination of midwifery.
        Women Birth. 2007; 20: 25-29
      15. Nurses and Midwives Act (WA) 2006.
        • Australasian Tranined Nurses’ Association
        The Australian Women’s Register. (1899–).
        • Victorian Trained Nurses Association (VTNA)
        The Australian Women’s Register. (1901–1904).
        • Reiger K.
        The Politics of Midwifery in Australia: tensions, debates and opportunities.
        Annu. Rev. Soc. Sci. 2000; 10: 53-64
      16. Sena-Becker T. More than Just a Union: A History of the AMA. Fair count Media Group, Australia2012
        • Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
        Home birth.
        O&G Mag. 2011; 13: 7
      17. Health Act Midwives Regulations 1959 (WA) P.H.D. 2302/59. No.46, 1962.
      18. Health Act Midwives Regulations (WA) No. 38 1968.
      19. Health Act Midwives Regulations (WA) 1976.
      20. Health Act (Midwfery Nurses) Regulations 1982 (WA).
        • Australian Government
        Medicare Levy Surcharge.
        2021 ([Available from:])
        • Department of Health
        Family Birth Centre Application Form Version 5.
        Government of Western Australia, 2018
      21. WA’s First Family Birth Centre Celebrates Silver Anniversary [press release].
        2017 (Monday, 4 September 2017.)
        • Commonwealth of Australia
        Improving Maternity Services in Australia. The Report of the Maternity Services Review P3-4946.
      22. Health Legislation Amendment (Midwives and Nurse Practitioner) (WA) Bill 2009 and Two Related Bills.
      23. Midwife Professional Indemnity (Commonwealth Contribution) Scheme Act (Australian Government) 2010 No. 30.
      24. Midwife Professional Indemnity (Run-off Cover Support Payment) Act 2010 (Australian Government) Act No. 31 of 2010 As Amended.
      25. Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (WA) Amendment Bill 2017 EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM.
        • Australian College of Midwives
        COAG Asks NMBA for Audit of All PPMs Providing Homebirth Services in 2017.
        2017 ([Available from:])
        • Staunton P.
        • Chiarella M.
        Law for Nurses and Midwives.
        eighth ed. Elsevier, NSW, Australia2017
        • Nursing and Midwifery Board (AHPRA)
        About 2019.
        2019 ([Available from:])
        • Nursing and Midwifery Board (AHPRA) of Australia
        Safety and Quality Guidelines for Privately Practising Midwives Australia.
        2016 ([Available from:])
      26. Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (WA) Act 035 of 2010.
      27. Vero Cuts Midwives’ Insurance Scheme [press release]. 11 May 2015.
        • MIGA Insurance
        Protection Tailored to Midwifery Practice: Supporting Eligible Privately Practising Midwives Across Australia.
        2018 (Australia. [Available from:])
      28. Health Legislation Amendment (Midwives and Nurse Practitioners) Act 2010 No. 29.
        • Australian College of Midwives
        National Midwifery Guidelines for Consulataion and Referral Australia.
        third ed. Australian College of Midwives Inc., 2014 ([Available from:])
      29. National Midiwfery Guidelines for Consultaion and Referral.
        Australian College of Midwives Inc., Australia2004
        • Plibersek T.
        National Health (Collaborative Arrangements for Midwives) Amendment Determination 2013, Under Subsection 84 (1) of the National Health Act 1953.