Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown (1889-1946)

Winifred McCubbin (b.1908, d.1991)
Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown studied for her MBBS in 1914.Although Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown died over 75 years ago, her legacy to Victoria remains a vibrant part of our state’s health system. In 1926 she was appointed as the inaugural director of infant welfare in Victoria, thus also becoming the first woman to head a state government department. She began with a small number of baby health centres run by devoted volunteers, and gradually transformed the service into a professional, statewide system. Vera Scantlebury (1889–1946) graduated from the University of Melbourne’s medical school in April 1914 and, as the Great War rolled on, rose to become senior resident at the Children’s Hospital. Only the exigencies of wartime overcame the hospital board’s strong resistance to appointing women. But Vera wanted to contribute more directly to the war effort, and in late 1916 accepted a position as assistant surgeon at London’s Endell Street Military Hospital, known as the ‘suffragette’ hospital. There she joined 180 women—doctors, physicians, nurses, voluntary aid detachments and orderlies—and performed surgery in the operating theatre from May 1917 to January 1919. Between 1915 and 1919 the hospital treated more than 26,000 wounded, injured and sick soldiers, but Vera believed that her wartime work would count for little at home. Vera returned to Melbourne in 1919, desiring to rejoin the Children’s Hospital as an honorary—the gateway to developing a paediatric practice. In 1924 she travelled to New Zealand, Canada, New York and Chicago to study child health, and completed her MD. But she was stymied in successive attempts at obtaining an honorary post and finally reconciled herself to a career in public health. Between 1926 and 1946 Vera led the development of 316 baby health centres, subsidies for 85 free kindergartens and 18 mobile units, and a correspondence school scheme for isolated country families. Today, Victoria enjoys a world-renowned, universal and free maternal and child health service, and Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown lies at the heart of it.
Dr Heather Sheard
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Object detail

oil on canvas
49 x 37 cm (unframed)
62 x 43 cm (framed)
Accession Number
Credit line
Gift of Catherine James Bennett, daughter of Vera Scantlebury Brown, 2013
Object Type
Medical History Museum Category


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