Story: Hospitals

Page 4. Maternity, women’s and children’s hospitals

All images & media in this story

Maternity and women’s hospitals

Religious charities founded ‘rescue’ homes, where unmarried mothers could give birth, in the late 19th century. Most married women gave birth at home. In 1904 the government set up seven public maternity hospitals (St Helens hospitals) around the country. These provided subsidised maternity care and trained midwives.

Women’s troubles

Dr Doris Gordon (1890–1956) was a prominent obstetrician and women’s health reformer. She exemplified the mid-20th century faith in medical science when she wrote in favour of founding National Women’s Hospital: ‘New Zealand thinks of women’s health solely in terms of a creditably low infantile and maternal death rate …. This Dominion does not yet realize that women have a right to POSITIVE good health, and that modern discoveries taught at a Post Graduate centre would soon cure 75% of the troubles hitherto passively accepted as "Women’s lot".'1

Until the 1960s these hospitals were run by midwives and controlled by the Health Department. Technological developments in maternity and neonatal care were concentrated in the larger women’s hospitals. After the Second World War the St Helens hospitals were either closed or absorbed by these hospitals. St Helens Christchurch merged with Christchurch Women’s Hospital in 1968 and Wellington’s St Helens closed when a new high-tech maternity unit was completed at the city’s public hospital in 1978. In Auckland, the services of the local St Helens hospital were transferred to National Women’s Hospital in 1990.

National Women’s (at first called the Cornwall Hospital, Obstetrical and Gynaecological Unit) was established in 1946, after a major fundraising effort by women to provide more beds for women in childbirth, and to train doctors in obstetrics and gynaecology. The linking of childbirth and women’s diseases into one field followed an international trend. Gynaecological services at National Women’s were split from obstetrical services in 1990. In 2004 National Women’s Hospital closed and its services were merged with those of the general city hospital.

Doting dads

In 1931 the Observer newspaper commented that many fathers whose children were admitted to a Karitane hospital were ‘most attached to their delicate children, but simply don’t know what to do with them. An extremely worried and frightened father arrived at the Karitane Home, not long ago, carrying his tiny son and heir in a cardboard shoe-box.’2

Karitane hospitals

Karitane hospitals, for newborn babies who failed to thrive, were established by the Plunket Society from 1907 to fill a gap in general hospital services and to train nurses in newborn childcare. Six hospitals were set up around the country. They also admitted new mothers to help them establish breastfeeding, and sometimes just to help them to cope with their newborn baby.

In the late 1970s the hospitals were closed, as they had become too expensive for Plunket, a voluntary organisation, to maintain. Their services were superseded by more high-tech public maternity and women’s hospitals, and in place of the hospitals the society opened Plunket Karitane Family Centres to provide daytime support for parents and babies in need.

Children’s hospitals

Children’s hospitals were set up in Britain from the mid-19th century and in Australia from 1870, but New Zealand did not follow until well into the 20th century. The Princess Mary Hospital for Children was established on the Auckland Hospital site in 1918. Pressure came from paediatricians to extend the services provided, especially after the Paediatric Society of New Zealand was founded in 1947. Despite this, a purpose-built high-tech national children’s hospital (the Starship children’s hospital) was not established in Auckland until 1991.

  1. Dr Doris Gordon to Nina Barrer, 29 November 1944. Gordon, Doris Clifton. Letters and papers, 1937–1958. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS 115. Back
  2. Quoted in Linda Bryder, Not just weighing babies: Plunket in Auckland, 1908–1998. Auckland: Pyramid Press, 1998, p. 40. Back
How to cite this page:

Linda Bryder, 'Hospitals - Maternity, women’s and children’s hospitals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 March 2024)

Story by Linda Bryder, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 13 Jun 2018, updated 1 Jul 2022