Memories of Cornwall Park Hospital – Part One

Maternity care and cancer treatments

Memories of Cornwall Park Hospital – Part One
Cornwall Park, Auckland, with buildings of the Cornwall Park Hospital. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-25902-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22914730

On 24 February 2024, Cornwall Park hosted a Heritage Day to commemorate the 39th General United States Army Hospital, Cornwall Maternity Unit, later National Women’s Hospital and Cornwall Geriatric Hospital which all found their homes on Cornwall Park in the 20th century.

Our Health Journeys documented the experiences and memories of some of the hospital staff for the Heritage Day. Many staff shared anecdotes along the same themes of the hospital facilities, treatment, maternal care, toileting, and stories about some of the doctors.

Explore Part One below featuring maternal care and cancer treatment, or click here to listen to the stories in the staff’s own words. For some of the groundbreaking and internationally significant work first undertaken at National Women’s Hospital, click here to read about Professor Sir Graham (Mont) Liggins, and here for a video presentation on Professor Sir William Liley.

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Student nurses learning. Image supplied.

Only Married Women Can Get Pregnant

Many of the nurses remember their training and other trainees at the hospital. Colleen Williams recalls that many were, “…very innocent about conception and birth. Provisional Nurse Mary had been educated in a convent and was very new to gynae[cology]. When a young doctor called to her urgently from behind a screen to, ‘Bring a tray please nurse, this young woman is losing her baby.’ Mary stood still for a second and said, ‘Oh no, Doctor, she can't be. She isn't married.’”
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Nurses January 1961. Image supplied by Dr Margaret Horsburgh.

An Abundance of Talcum Powder

If a woman went to the hospital to give birth, they remained for 10 days. As such, many women came prepared for their long stay. “Women had special nighties with fancy bed jackets, pink or blue dressing gowns, and the invariable fluffy slippers. They… came in with neatly packed bags of pretty things. A sponge bag was a necessity and apart from holding fancy smelling soap, they nearly always had talcum powder.” Nurse Colleen Williams recalls that she came to hate the smell of talcum powder and still she associates it with sponge-washed bodies. After giving birth, the women remained in bed for several days, “Patients who were in bed and being sponged would smother themselves with talc and the perfumes of violet or rose or whatever cheap perfumes. The talc caked in the creases under voluminous breasts and in the folds of abdomens and groynes… and mixed with normal body odours smelled awful.” Both patients and nurses, “rejoiced when finally a bath was permitted.”

Mothers, Fathers, and Babies

Because the mothers were not allowed out of bed for days after giving birth, the nurses would bring the babies to their mothers. Nurse Beatrice Burnell remembers, “The nurses would change all the babies one by one, and wrap them up firmly in their wrappers, and put them onto a trolley… And then that got wheeled out into the ward, and we took each baby to its mother.
For the fathers, they would visit the window of the nursery and a nurse would lift their baby up to be seen. The fathers, “…relied on us to pick the right baby up… and certainly we did play some tricks on them sometimes to bring the wrong baby to the father to see if he recognised [them]. Beatrice admits, “We were a bit naughty, but we did do that occasionally.”

Binding Breasts and Tummies

Binders were long pieces of material used to bind the breasts and tummies of new mums. Beatrice Burnell states that while she knows she could still bind breasts with a person in front of her, she can’t explain the process any further than, “We laid them [binding fabric] down, laid the ladies down, and we put [in] the first pin. We pinned it together and that was crucial, to get that first pin in nice and tight.”
The material for abdominal binders had flaps in addition to being a long strip. The fabric went across the tummy, “one from the other side to the other side, and then… folded the edges over and pinned them.” The binders were pinned to the patient firmly, and unlike today, the fundus of the uterus was not checked. Beatrice is grateful for safety pins and states that without them caring for their patients would have been much more difficult.

Treatment of Cancers

Ngairene Rogers was employed in the admitting office of the hospital starting in 1959 and recalls that, “When an examination in clinic revealed the probability of cancer, the patient was admitted straight to a ward without going home first.”
For women in the wards past the ‘No Entrance’ signs, Nurse Verna Harford remembers feeling for them, knowing that they were so isolated during their radiation treatment. For the nurses who attended them during the radiation, they had to be monitored for radiation exposure. Nurse Rosie Deveraux remembers “…having to wear a heavy belt when we treated the patients, and it was monitored, the amount of radiation we were getting… You couldn't stay in the room for long periods for the nurse's safety.” The nurses were not meant to go to the end of the bed, as they had been told the radiation was inside the patient and it would increase their exposure. Rosie said it made looking after the patients much more difficult.
“I still remember a lovely woman, Mrs. C, who was dying of cancer of the uterus in one of the side rooms. We would inject her with enormous quantities of morphine and in an hour or so she would be begging and begging us for more. The morphine was prescribed four-hourly, and we would have to try and pacify her until Sister came and checked her next fix. She lingered on for weeks. I wish I could have done more for her. One day her room was empty, and she was gone.” – Colleen Williams

Revolutionary Hospitals

The hospitals at Cornwall Park were, “ a revolution in health care for Auckland, the first proper women’s hospital with staff trained to care for women’s health issues. No longer would the surgeons and Auckland Hospital reluctantly give a few beds for gynaecology and no longer would women be giving birth in lots of scattered maternity homes all over the city and some with very problematic health outcomes.
"The establishment of a Women’s Hospital and then the Postgraduate School of Obstetrics and Gynaecology brought to fruition the work of the New Zealand Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society and later the efforts of Dr Doris Gordon and Sir Douglas Robb amongst others from The University of Auckland. What is also remarkable is that all this was happening less than 20 years after the founding of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK, a college formed to advance the care for women and their babies by specifically trained professionals.
"Similarly for the first time we had a place dedicated to care of the elderly,” (which is yet another story in and of itself) – Peter Stone, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Auckland.