On 5 July 2024, we mark the 125th anniversary of the opening of the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women — a landmark occasion that revolutionised Australian women’s healthcare services. This pivotal moment would not have been possible without the lifetime commitment of the hospital’s founder, Constance Stone, the first woman to be registered as a doctor in Australia. However, her road to success involved an arduous journey, during which she was met with much opposition from the medical profession.

Side portrait of Constance Stone as a young woman, hair in bun
Portrait of Constance Stone (1852-1902), c. 1890. Courtesy of the Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne; MHM02914

Medical women? How absurd!

Constance Stone was not eligible to enrol into the University of Melbourne’s School of Medicine in 1884, for the sole reason that she was a woman. Other University courses, such as Arts, had been admitting women since 1880. However, longstanding views from professionals such as the Medical Board of Victoria, claimed that women wouldn’t be able to manage the confronting nature of a doctor’s work:

Banner reads 'Australian Medical Journal, July 1865'. Headline underneath reads 'Medical Women'
‘Medical Women’ article heading from the Australian Medical Journal, July 1865, p 234

A woman who dissects, makes post-mortem examinations, tests urine and carries diseased specimens in her dress pocket; who can pass the male catheter and apply ligatures to haemorrhoids… is not a person in whom you would look for the tenderer domestic qualities.1

The Board concluded that:

Medical women will occasionally be imported like other curiosities, and the public will wonder at them just as it wonders at dancing dogs, fat boys and bearded ladies… 2

Determined to shift this narrow professional mindset, Constance was forced to seek educational opportunities elsewhere — realising that in order to pursue a career as a doctor, she first had to leave her home country.


Early influences

Constance was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 4 December 1856 as Emma Constance Stone but didn’t go by her first name. She was the oldest of six children to parents, William and Betsy Stone, who emigrated from England to Tasmania in 1854. The Stones moved to Melbourne in 1872 and lived in Middle Park, close to St Kilda, where William established a pipe-organ building business. Betsy home-schooled her children, with William sparking Constance’s interest in the natural sciences. 3 After finishing her schooling, Constance taught classes for girls at her home.

In 1882, Constance met her future husband, David Egryn Jones, a minister at the Collins Street Independent Church. He wanted to help the sick and impoverished members of his congregation, so decided to become a doctor. Constance shared his dedication to social justice issues, 4 which led to her pursuing her own career in medicine.


Following her dream across the world

After realising she would not be permitted to study medicine in Australia, Constance travelled to the US in 1884 to study at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1887, she worked as a doctor at a women and children’s hospital in Staten Island, New York. She then went on to train as a surgeon at the University of Toronto. The resultant Canadian Commonwealth qualification would contribute to helping her register as a doctor in Australia.

Constance’s pursuit of wider clinical opportunities took her across the Atlantic to obtain a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries from the London School of Medicine for Women. Here, she worked at the New Hospital for Women, which was staffed entirely by medical women. This work restored Constance’s faith in an industry that acknowledged the value of women practitioners. She was now motivated to travel back home to open up the medical profession for Australian women.


‘The first Australian lady doctor’

Newspaper portrait of Constance Stone in graduation cap and gown
‘Miss E Constance Stone, MB, CM, (The first qualified Australian lady doctor)’, The Bulletin, 1 March 1890, p 6

In 1889, Constance Stone returned to Australia, equipped with the six years of invaluable experience she had gained in the US, Canada and England. On 7 February 1890, she appeared before the Medical Board of Registration and became the first woman to be registered as a doctor in Australia. Table Talk magazine described Constance as:

Text from newspaper article about Constance Stone
‘Dr E.Constance Stone: The first Australian lady doctor’, Table Talk, 14 February 1890, p 4

Victorian medical women unite!

The University of Melbourne started admitting women in 1887 and one of the first women to graduate was Constance’s sister, Clara. She and Constance both volunteered at Dr John Singleton’s Free Medical Dispensary in Collingwood and Constance also set up her own practice on Collins Street. 5 In order to improve educational and employment opportunities for other medical women, Constance established the Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS). Their first meeting took place on 22 March 1895 6 and the association is still running today.

Group photo of 10 women
Members of the Victorian Medical Women’s Society, 1898. Dr Constance Stone pictured centre of back row. Courtesy of the Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne; MHM02919

In 1893, Constance had married David Egryn Jones, who was then minister at St David’s Welsh Church on La Trobe Street. Using her husband’s church hall, Constance and the VMWS established a clinic known as the Victoria Hospital for Women and Children. This name was chosen to indicate that the service was available to women from all over the colony. Constance saw a particular need for women doctors who could treat women patients — many of whom would rather suffer in pain than be medically examined by a man. 7 After being open for only three months in 1896, the Victoria Hospital had already received more than 2000 patients, 8 many from regional Victoria. In a letter written by Egryn Jones, 9 he describes the popularity of his wife’s first clinic:

Typed excerpt from letter by Egryn Jones
Egryn Jones, D, 1926, ‘Letter : to Miss Evans, 1926 Sep 16’, MS 11362

The Queen’s Shilling Fund

As the VMWS knew the church hall could only be a temporary clinic, it made plans to purchase its own hospital where inpatients could also be treated. Constance worked closely with key suffragettes Annette Bear-Crawford and Vida Goldstein to campaign for the cause. 10 A shilling fund appeal was launched on 19 February 1897 and encouraged every woman in Victoria to donate one shilling to establish a hospital for women, run by women and to honour Queen Victoria, who was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee.

Text excerpt from public notice to the women of Victoria asking them to donate to the cause of a hospital for women.
‘Victorian Women’s Testimonial to the Queen’, Champion, 13 March 1897

A fundraising leaflet was distributed at the headquarters of the Queen’s Shilling Fund campaign in the popular Cole’s Book Arcade, which E W Cole generously offered as his contribution towards the hospital. Volunteers asked for a shilling donation from everyone who walked ‘the Block’, a daily fashionable promenade along Collins Street. 11

Facade of two-storey Cole's Book Arcade with wrought iron verandah on street
Cole’s Book Arcade, 1928. Photo by Darge Photographic Co; ID 1637182

The Queen Victoria Hospital: Pro Feminis a Feminis

The public contribution was overwhelming — 3162 pounds, 11 shillings and 9 pence 12 had been raised across Victoria. The Governess Institute was purchased in Mint Place and The Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Children was officially opened on 5 July 1899.

Excerpt from newspaper artile about the opening of the Queen Victoria Hospital
‘Queen Victoria Hospital. The opening ceremony’, The Age, 6 July 1899, p 6

The hospital’s opening ceremony was a grand affair, with speeches given and tours conducted of the new facilities. There was even a band playing on the hospital balcony, which created a truly festive atmosphere. 13

Collage of photos depicting hospital beds, opening ceremony crowd and nurses
Opening ceremony shown in ‘The Queen Victoria Hospital – a women’s hospital officered by women’, Weekly Times, 15 July 1899, p 10

Left: Medical ward; Right: Operating theatre (Source: Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital annual report, 1899)

The motto of the hospital was Pro Feminis a Feminis, which is Latin for ‘For Women by Women’.

The Queen Victoria Hospital Annual Report of 1899 proudly stated that its objective was:

to afford to women and children in poor and distressed circumstances, the opportunity of obtaining medical and surgical treatment by qualified women medical practitioners. 14

When the hospital opened, women and their children could finally receive medical care by women doctors, who could also provide pregnancy and childbirth health services. In fact, Constance was heavily pregnant at the hospital’s grand opening and her only child, a daughter named Bronwen, was born the following week. The hospital was renamed the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital after the Queen died in 1901. It relocated to Lonsdale Street in 1946 to occupy the former Melbourne Hospital and then became the largest hospital for women, run by women, in the British Commonwealth. 15

Black and white postcard picture of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital exterior in the early 1940s
Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne, ca. 1943; H96.200/390

In 1977, the hospital merged with other health care institutions to become the Queen Victoria Medical Centre. The hospital eventually moved out to Clayton in 1987, becoming the Monash Medical Centre. Most of the original buildings on Lonsdale Street were demolished by 1992. All that remains of the once grand hospital is the small central building, which was preserved and opened in 1996 as the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, a much-needed community hub for women’s services.

Left: Detail of Queen Victoria Hospital (Old Melbourne), [ca 1945-ca 1954]. Photo from Victorian Railways Collection; H91.50/1517. Right: Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, 2024. Photo by author.

The Women’s Centre closed for renovations in 1998 and reopened in 2005, coinciding with the opening of the sprawling QV shopping complex — with the contribution of the hospital’s founder acknowledged in a commemorative laneway:

Constance Stone Lane street sign below hospital brick building
Constance Stone Lane, next to Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, QV shopping complex. Photo by author.

Constance’s legacy

Constance dedicated her life to improving the lives of women and children in Victoria. She worked with the United Council for Women’s Suffrage 16 and also raised the age of consent for girls and abolished prostitution of children. 17

Portrait of woman above hospital buildings illustration
E Constance Stone, M D, Riley and Ephemera Poster Collection, State Library Victoria, 1990-1999. Equal Opportunity Board; Ministry of Education; Victoria. Licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution Version 4.0 (international licence)

Constance became seriously ill in late 1899 and on 29 December 1902, just three years after opening the hospital, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. Her daughter, Bronwen Jones, was only three years old but grew up to continue her mother’s work; graduating from Medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1923 and becoming an honorary staff member at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital. Her mother’s dream of ‘a hospital for women, run by women’ had become a reality and Dr Constance Stone’s lifetime commitment continues to help countless Victorian women lead safe, happy and healthy lives.

Glass window bearing words 'For Women By Women' under building sign that reads Queen Victoria
For Women. By Women. Motto proudly displayed on the facade of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, 2024. Photo by author.

References

  1. ‘Medical Women’, Australian Medical Journal, July 1865, p 234
  2. As above, p 235
  3. Murnane, M, 2015, Honourable healers : pioneering women doctors : Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Constance Stone, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, Vic, p 136
  4. Russell, E, 1997, Bricks or spirit : the Queen Victoria Hospital Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, p 10
  5. Russell, E, 1997, Bricks or spirit : the Queen Victoria Hospital, Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne
  6. Murnane, M, 1937, ‘Records of the Victorian Medical Women’s Society, 1937-ca 2000’, YMS 16706, State Library Victoria
  7. Swinburne, G H, 1951, The Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne : a history, the first fifty years, Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne, p 6
  8. Murnane, M, 2015, Honourable healers : pioneering women doctors : Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Constance Stone, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, Vic, p 148
  9. Egryn Jones, D, 1926, ‘Letter : to Miss Evans, 1926 Sep 16’, MS 11362, State Library Victoria
  10. Swinburne, G. H, 1951, The Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne : a history, the first fifty years, Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne, p 12
  11. As above, p 18
  12. Russell, E, 1997, Bricks or spirit : the Queen Victoria Hospital Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, p 26
  13. Victorian women’s testimonial to the Queen’, The Age, 6 July 1899, p 6
  14. Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital Annual Report (1896/97-1917/18), 1899, p 2
  15. Murnane, M, 2015, Honourable healers : pioneering women doctors : Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Constance Stone, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, Vic, p 163
  16. As above, p 150
  17. As above, p 144

This article has 17 comments

  1. Thank you for this beautiful article. I worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital in the mid 1970s and as a young woman I felt awe at the many brilliant female surgeons and physicians I encountered there, among them, the formidable Dame Joyce Dawes, Miss Elizabeth Lewis, Dame June Howqua. They and their colleagues deserve to be honoured with a statue or plaque or both, at the site of the old hospital, along with Dr. Constance Stone, to whom we owe so much.

    • Heather Sheard

      There are two plaques so far at the front of the Welsh Church, the site of the first women’s hospital. One honours Constance and the other commemorates the six Melbourne women doctors who served in the First World War. The original ward and little office and window where prescriptions were dispensed are all still there beside the Church.

  2. Isabel Simpson

    Fantastic article I really appreciate it – many thanks Isabel

  3. Philippa Strang

    Thank you for reminding us of this wonderful woman Constance Stone. Such a pioneer for women’s healthcare and women’s education.
    I trained as a midwife at QVMH in the 1970s, and had my 2 children there.

  4. Great to be able to read this. I remember coming into the library checking on some of the family papers and amongst the papers was a medallion to do with her medical degree from memory I wonder if still available to view. She is part of our family history

  5. Great article. Thanks. I too worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital, employed in 1979 to establish the first 24 hour hospital based sexual assault centre in Melbourne. All of the women involved in working to get that service established, following in Constance Stone’s footsteps – by women for women.

  6. Such interesting information! Thank you for sharing with fellow Melbournians.

  7. Marion Stott OAM

    The relatives of Dr John Singleton have always been admiringly proud of the professional association he took when employing the first women Doctors in Melbourne, of Dr Constance Stone and her sister Dr Clara Stone.

  8. A very interesting story. I was born in the Queen Victoria Hospital when it was in William Street and I had my children there when it was in the Lonsdale Street building.

  9. Great article, my mother spoke of the shilling from every Victorian woman.
    Also saying that the hospital belonged to the women of Victoria without their shillings the hospital would not have happened.

    Are you going to write about other women doctors e.g. Dr Lorna Lloyd-Green
    who was a wonderful Doctor who also helped many women especially with her gynecology expertise.

    I was born at the Queen Victoria 1949

    • Alison Ridgway

      Thank you, Margot. There are no current plans to write a blog about Dr Lorna Lloyd-Green but I am glad you enjoyed reading about Constance Stone and her hospital that truly did belong to the women of Victoria.

  10. Avis Florence Ridgway

    So thoroughly researched and carefully written , this informative article has opened my eyes to the work of those who established the Queen Victoria Hospital . Thank you for your exceptional research Alison .

  11. Heather Sheard

    Thank you for your beautifully researched article Alison – a pleasure to read.

  12. Pierina Morano

    Many thanks for this informative article. It is interesting to learn about the history of Dr Stone and the Queen Victoria hospital. My sister and I were born at Queen Victoria hospital in the city in the 1960s. As an Italian woman who migrated and married in Melbourne, our Mum always spoke with regard and fondness for the care she received at the hospital – thank you.

  13. Thank you Alison for this wonderfully researched article .It is great to read about those not so well known people who have been part of our early Victorian History .I do look forward to some more
    of your research

  14. Really enjoyed reading the article. I did my Midwifery training at ‘Queen Vic’ in 1981 and even then it had a strong feeling of ‘for women, by women’. Thank you.

  15. This history is vital to maintain. I was born at the Queen Vic in 1952 and my mother was born there in 1929. I love this history and the determination of Constance and all other women who dedicated their lives making ours better. I am of course more grateful for their skill as I was born with the cord around my neck and the delicate work of doctors and nurses in 1952 ensured I survived and thrived.

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