Hobart Heritage: 100 years of women’s general practice
To celebrate Women's Health Week, we shine a light on Ochre's arguably most influential and inspiring female-led practices. Established in 1927 by one of Tasmania's first women doctors, Dr Christine Walch, the Ochre Barrack Street Practice offers a fascinating insight into the pioneering women of Australian general practice.
When Hobart-born Christine Walch lost her fiancé in World War One, she decided to leave Tasmania to study medicine in Sydney. When she returned to Hobart in 1927 as a newly qualified doctor, she had no real intentions of specialising in women's health. But as only one of two female doctors in Hobart at that time, she was destined to fill the enormous demand from women for a female GP with the latest knowledge of gynaecology and obstetrics. Not surprisingly, her practice took off from there.
For almost three decades, Dr Walch became an obstetrics pioneer, opening Hobart's first ante-natal clinic and was rightly proud of her low maternal and infant mortality rates. When she retired in 1954, her practice had been open long enough to deliver three generations of babies within the Hobart community.
In 1955, women's health advocate and obstetrician Dr Valerie Davenport took over the practice and continued the focus on women and their families. She went on to become instrumental in setting up the Family Planning Association of Tasmania in the 1970s.
Dr Susan Hampton, who has been at the Barrack Street Practice for over 35 years, remembers Dr Davenport as an inspiring force to be reckoned with. "I came to Hobart in the mid-1980s and met Dr Valerie Devonport for the first time,” she explains.
“She was about five foot nothing and had so much energy, but she wanted to retire. She convinced me that general practice is about looking after the whole woman and not just doing O&G. The concept of holistic care of women, families, and the community appealed to me.
"So I joined the practice in 1987 and gradually took over her obstetric practice. I had my first baby in September, and I went back to work nine weeks later. I've been here ever since."
Supportive female-led culture
For Dr Cathy Mayhead, who has been at the practice for over 17 years, the flexible and supportive approach towards female GPs juggling families with their careers was why she joined all those years ago.
"That's what Barrack Street was all about,” she says. “It was set up for women to be able to work part-time and support each other in the days when, if you didn't wear a suit and work for the AMA, you weren't a proper doctor.
"Barrack Street has always been a supportive practice for female doctors with family responsibilities. And way before this was widely accepted. If you got a call from school and had to go, everyone understood you had to do whatever was needed. We have always supported each other well, and we continue to do so with Ochre.”
Family general practice
Although the Barrack Street Practice still holds on to its history and original focus as a female-led practice, the team of 11 GPs has seen some recent change in the form of patient demographics, with younger singles and families moving into the community.
"Our practice has always had a solid female focus but in the context of women and family health. So we concentrated on women and their children. And if the husbands came along, that was all well and good," says Dr Hampton.
"Up until at least the end of the 1980s, there weren't many women doctors in general practice, so the demand from female patients for their services was very high. But since then, the number of women in medicine has increased along with the number of female GPs, which means the need for a practice that focuses purely on women's health has become less relevant.”
"Today, we're a family general practice where women still feel safe coming here," says Dr Mayhead. "There's this perception that all our patients are women, and we don't see men. But we have many male patients who are either fathers of the families that come here or who work in the neighbourhood. So in our experience, a lot of men actually prefer women doctors.
"We also have some men on the team now, which has been a positive thing. We've had three registrars, one of whom has stayed, and another we hope will come back."
Importance of women’s health
As we celebrate Women’s Health Week, Dr Hampton says it is still important to raise awareness even when so much progress has been made in the last few decades. "The reality is, particularly for families, women are still the hub around which the wheel rotates. If women don't look after themselves, then families can often fall apart," she says.
“It's about learning to support each other and making sure we take time to look after our health. So many women put their families first because that's what we do. And it's a matter of convincing them that we need to look after them as well.”
Dr Hampton and Dr Mayhead have always had a particular interest in women's and children's health as they both enjoy caring for patients in a family setting. "Over the years, as other people have retired, my practice has got older and older, so I've aged with my patients,” says Dr Hampton. “I have more conversations about menopause now than I do about pregnancy. And after 35 years, I even have grand patients, which is lovely.”
"After all these years, continuity of care is one of the things that still keeps me enjoying my work," agrees Dr Mayhead. "It's the people I've known who have been patients for 20-plus years, whose children have grown up with my children, and we all know what's going on in our lives. They support me as much as I support them."
So what does the future hold for Barrack Street? “We're amalgamating with another Ochre Health practice in North Hobart, and there are a couple of bright young doctors there. We have a really good future with Ochre. I have no doubt the legacy of our founders will continue on for years to come,” says Dr Hampton.
“As we’re moving premises, it’s a time for reflection,” says Dr Mayhead. “Female pioneers such as Dr Walch and Dr Davenport paved the way for the huge advances in women’s health we see today and we should all take time to acknowledge their achievements.”
The Jean Hailes' Women's Health Week is the biggest week in Australia dedicated to good health and wellbeing for women and girls. Women, workplaces, communities, groups, and schools are all encouraged to get involved. For more information visit: https://www.womenshealthweek.com.au/