St Vincent’s – founded by women, led by women, run by women

This International Women’s Day, we reflect on the history of St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, founded by women, led by women, run by women. We take great pride in seeing the countless examples of inspiring women taking courageous action throughout the years, to ensure the existence and success of this amazing hospital. These women have created and contributed to an organisation which today is a leading medical, surgical and research facility with an enviable reputation for delivering exceptional patient care to the people of Victoria.

The Sisters of Charity established St Vincent’s in 1893, with just seven sisters identifying Fitzroy as the location for a hospital. What began as a small “cottage” hospital of 30 beds, has grown beyond all expectations; in no small part due to the extraordinary women who rose to the various challenges along the way.

One of our founding sisters, charismatic school teacher, Mother Mary Berchmans Daly proved to have remarkable fundraising and networking abilities, which she energetically applied to support the fledgling hospital. Her impressive leadership, drive and imagination helped to attract talented staff which made St Vincent’s the leading surgical hospital in Victoria if not Australia. Not content with 30 beds, Mother Berchmans envisaged over 400 and boldly applied her formidable fundraising skills to building a bigger hospital. With a single-minded focus based on “the Lord helps those who help themselves”, the new hospital was officially opened in 1905.

In the decades to follow, St Vincent’s was at the forefront of many innovations with women continuing to boldly lead the way:

  • Mary Glowrey was a student in the foundation year of the Clinical School and first female physician on staff – she went on to receive special dispensation to practice medicine in India as the first nun-doctor missionary
  • Norma Parker appointed as Social Worker in 1932 is regarded as one of Australia’s pioneers in this field
  • Sr Mary Felix Thorburn AM RSC pioneered specialist postgraduate theatre training for nurses in the 1950s
  • Sr Francesca Healy RSC founded St Vincent’s at Home in 1959 and Prague House in 1976 to meet special patient needs
  • Dr Margaret Garson AO played a leading role in establishing cytogenetics as a new field of medical research in Victoria in the 1960s
  • Trained nurse Joan Kirwan RRC became Matron-in-chief of the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service in 1975
  • Joan Vickery AO was appointed as Aboriginal Hospital Liaison Officer in 1982 in a new Health Commission initiative (one of her many contributions to Koori Health)
  • Wilma Beswick AM served as Clinical Dean for 23 years prior to her current role as Chief Medical Officer
  • Trained nurse Patricia O’Rourke has been a member of SVHA’s Executive Leadership team since 2013 and before that was CEO of St Vincent’s for five years
  • Sue O’Neill, also a former nurse, took over the helm in 2016 and is the current St Vincent’s CEO

Mother Berchmans Daly’s vision has come to pass.

Today, we have 4618 women contributing to ensure that St Vincent’s builds an ever stronger culture of innovation and continuous improvement. This includes 1550 Registered Nurses, 172 Medical Scientists, 197 Registrars, 188 Fractional Specialists, 157 Medical Officers and 911 Health and Allied Services staff. The continued impressive growth and change of St Vincent’s is a testament to the pioneering spirit and determination of women and the part they have played in their commitment to offering first-class healthcare to the community.

Breast Surgeon Cathie Poliness, Orthopaedic Surgeon Vikki Pliatsios, Plastic Surgeon Angela Webb and Orthopaedic Surgeon Claudia Di Bella are among St Vincent’s senior surgeons.

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