History of the Women's and Children's Hospital – Celebrating 140 years

About the WCH

Celebrating 140 years

WCH 140 years

Celebrating 140 Years – Morning tea and Governor's visit

Wednesday, 20 June 2018



The foundation stone for the Adelaide Children's Hospital was laid on 20 June 1878.

At that time, the Adelaide Hospital (now ‘Royal Adelaide Hospital) was the only hospital in the colony.

And the first public health legislation, the Public Health Act 1873, had been in place for just five years.

That legislation had established the first boards of health, tasked with maintaining and improving the public health of the colony.

Responding to a need

And it was the early investigations of the Central Health Board, which played such a key role in defining the case for a children’s hospital.

The first report of the Central Health Board in 1875 stated:

“In old and dilapidated cottages which are really unfit for habitation, often consisting of only two or three rooms, as many as twelve or thirteen persons have been found huddled together, as regardless of decency as of health.

“Around these dwellings are found dilapidated closets, built and exposed without regard even to decency – cesspits overflowing, stagnant drains, and filth abounding in every shape.”

The health board identified several of these tenements around the city, and made recommendations to ensure they became ‘clean and habitable’.

Provisions were also made for the cleaning of streets and the disposal of rubbish.

The sanitary problems in Adelaide, however, were closely linked to another health crisis in the colony.

High infant mortality

Statistics from as far back as the 1850s show that South Australia consistently reported the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. In the 1870s, this rate peaked at around 180 deaths per 1000 live births.

In 1876, the Evening Journal reported statistics compiled by the Government Statistician in Tasmania, which showed that South Australia had the highest mortality rate in the nation for children under twelve months, under five years and under 10 years old.

To address the crisis, the Central Health Board initiated an investigation.

Dr. Allan Campbell

Dr Allan Campbell

The investigation found that a hospital for children was desperately needed, and prompted Dr Allan Campbell, a member of the Central Health Board, to form the founding committee of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital.

It is an extraordinary achievement, when you set out the timeline from the beginning of this movement, to the completion of the hospital.

The nine founders met for the first time to discuss the children’s hospital on 5 September 1876, they appointed planning committees, determined a site for the hospital, bought the land, raised two thirds of the cost of the hospital and construction commenced on this date in 1878.

In the 16-month planning period one particularly interesting proposal was considered and rejected.

Adelaide Children's Hospital original building

The Adelaide Children’s Hospital original building

In October 1876, the Site Planning Committee recommended that the proposed Adelaide Children’s Hospital be co-located with the Adelaide Hospital (now Royal Adelaide Hospital) on North Terrace.

This proposal was rejected, however, on several grounds, one of which was that the children would be ‘endangered by the closeness of the East Terrace drains and filth pond in the Botanic Gardens’.

Thankfully, this is no longer a contemporary concern.


Today, it seems somewhat of a “no-brainer” to have a dedicated paediatric hospital in a state capital city – but the establishment of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital was a hard-won fight. Not everyone was in favour of it – in particular some of the prominent residents of North Adelaide at the time.

But building an icon is never easy and there can be detractors who want to sully your vision, all the more reason to push on to realise your ambition.

That desire to build on those foundations and achieve excellence in care has never wavered.

On the death of founder Dr Allan Campbell in 1898, the local newspaper, The Register, noted in its obituary – in the florid journalistic style of the times – that:

“Some sympathetic statistician might do much worse than attempt to calculate how many children’s lives have been saved through the instrumentality of kindly people moved thereto by Dr Campbell’s warm heart.”

Adelaide Children's Hospital nurses

Nurses and children on a ward at the ACH (date unknown)

Culture of excellence

That vision and desire continues today through the work of clinicians who have dedicated their careers to the specialised areas of caring for children and women – from before birth, during birth, and throughout the various stages of childhood and adolescence.

WCH today

The Women’s and Children’s Hospital today

The hospital is something very special – something larger than the buildings that exist on the site today or those that once stood there.

A culture of caring that has evolved with the times and continues to strive for better health outcomes for all South Australians.

Providing Excellence in Care

Providing excellence in care for 140 years

Acknowledging the hospital's history and treatment of Aboriginal peoples

Smoking Ceremony

Kaurna Smoking Ceremony, Aboriginal Liaison Unit, Women’s and Children's Hospital, 2014

In celebrating 140 years of caring for the South Australian community, the Women's and Children's Health Network (WCHN) is mindful of the historically negative impact its predecessor organisations may have had on the lives of Aboriginal people as a collaborator in state-sanctioned policies of forced removal of babies and children from Aboriginal families.

WCHN acknowledges this history, and over the last decade has made a conscious effort to change the thinking around Aboriginal health, by adopting an approach that is not only more consultative, but also aware of the cultural needs of our Aboriginal consumers.

PDF iconStatement from WCHN Reconciliation Sub-Committee  (84kb)

Last Modified: 10-08-2018 16:53:05
URL: http://www.wch.sa.gov.au/about/140_years.html
Printed from the Women's and Childrens WWW site.