Helen Mayo lowers infant mortality with Mothers and Babies Health Association

Helen Mayo, with Harriet Stirling, founded what became the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association.
Image courtesy of State Library of South Australia 

Helen Mayo took maternal and infant health and welfare in South Australia and Australia to new heights in the early 20th Century.

After matriculating at the Advanced School for Girls in 1895, she topped her class, with scholarships, in medicine at Adelaide University. Mayo gained wider knowledge from two years working in infant health in England, Ireland and India.

Returning in 1906, she started a private practice and became clinical bacteriologist at Adelaide Hospital (1911-33), honorary clinician at Adelaide Children’s Hospital and clinical lecturer at Adelaide University.

In 1909, Mayo addressed an interstate conference on South Australia’s high infant mortality and the need to educate women for motherhood. That year, she and Harriet Stirling (daughter of Edward Stirling) founded the School for Mothers in Adelaide.

Despite criticism that spinsters Mayo and Stirlingcouldn’t teach mothers, the school flourished from a Wright Street cottage. It became the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association (MBHA). By 1927, it had branches throughout South Australia and a training school for maternal nurses. (The MBHA was absorbed later into the state health system.)

Because Adelaide Children’s Hospital wouldn’t treat infants aged under two, Mayo and her group in 1914 rented a St Peters house as a hospital for infants. Mayo set up strict anti-infection protocols later for what became the 70-bed Mareeba Hospital, run by the state government at Woodville.

Mayo also served on the University of Adelaide’s council (a first for Australian women) 1914-60, set up a women’s club and St Ann’s boarding college there, and encouraged a students’ union. She also founded the Lyceum Club for professional women.

She retired in 1938 and became an honorary consulting physician at the children’s hospital. When World War II broke out, she returned to the hospital as senior paediatric adviser, at the same time organising the Red Cross donor transfusion service.

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