Anyone who has delved into their own family history would be aware that, in the past, few families escaped the pain of losing at least one child before their first birthday. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the infant mortality rate was very much higher than it is now.
Between 1900 and 1907, the infant mortality rate in Australia was less than in Britain and most European countries. But it was still around ten per cent. Western Australia bore the unenviable record of having the highest infant death rate of any state in Australia. In 1902 and 1903, fourteen out of every one hundred babies born in Western Australia died in their first year. (This figure considers only the non-indigenous population.)
Several factors contributed to this high death rate, but gastro-intestinal infections were a major cause of babies dying. Especially in summer, these infections spread rapidly, with devastating results. Babies who were artificially fed were much more vulnerable than those who were breast fed. And babies of single mothers were far more likely to be weaned early and therefore succumb to such infections. In Perth, illegitimate births were up to ten per cent of the total births in 1903.
Added to this was the lack of effective medical treatments, poor sanitation, overcrowding due to rapid population growth and an apparent lack of political will to change things. In a letter to the West Australian newspaper in August 1903, Perth’s first female doctor, Roberta Jull, deplored “the enormous waste of life due to infant mortality”.
From experience, I should say the chief cause is the appalling ignorance of parents, mothers especially, as to the elementary facts of hygiene and infant feeding. Much could be done to remedy this by public lectures, and the distribution of simple pamphlets on the management of infants, written by competent authorities.
Dr Jull’s comments may seem hard on mothers. But at the time, many women in Western Australia had no family to turn to for support or advice on looking after their infants. They had arrived alone in the state during the gold rushes. Infant health clinics didn’t exist. Children’s nurses, even if registered, had no qualifications or training.
This was the background against which the Alice Mitchell case came into focus. As I describe in The Edward Street Baby Farm, most of the infants who died in Alice Mitchell’s care were the children of single mothers. Most at some stage suffered from a gastro-intestinal infection. Taken individually, their deaths were sad but unremarkable. It was the extra-ordinarily high rate of death (37 out of 43 babies) that finally drew official and public attention to her ‘baby farming’ business.