The Courier Mail, 28 January 2002

Writer breaks myths, past and present

A male publisher once sarcastically quipped that a book on great Australian women would be a very short volume.

At yesterday’s launch of Great Australian Women, Volume II, From Pioneering Days to the Present, Brisbane historian and author Susanna de Vries laughed at the obstacles she had faced in having the first volume published.

“Volume one did very well. About 10,000 people bought it,” she said. “Clearly, that male publisher was wrong.”

Battles won by great women of the 1860s still benefit all Australians today. Take Scottish migrant Mary McConnel, the wife of a Brisbane grazier. Mrs McConnel, who once waded into the chin‑high waters of a river in her heavy skirts and crinoline to rescue a laundry maid from drowning, had great personal courage.

When she established the Brisbane Children’s Hospital, the government believed that children under the age of five should not be admitted to hospital because they were their mother’s responsibility. Mrs McConnel herself lost two children under the age of one.

“Something like one child in five died before the age of five and over 20 per cent of women died in childbirth,” de Vries said. “These pioneers had to have extraordinary strength to cope because it was not like now.”

Mrs McConnel had visited Scotland’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children and knew that the colonial attitude was out­dated as well as barbaric.

“The government wasn’t going to help,” de Vries said. “They thought it was God’s will that women look after their children.”

Mrs McConnel paid for a matron and two nurses to come from London because there was a shortage of nurses in Australia.

Prostitutes applied for positions as nurses because it was something “nice women” did not do, de Vries said.

The book was launched at Mary Ryan book store and is available from major book sellers.