Nursing: Dr Madonna Grehan

Dr Madonna Grehan holds a Graduate Diploma (Health Ethics) and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. Madonna has had Fellowships from State Library Victoria and Queensland and is currently writing a book on midwifery and women’s health in nineteenth century Victoria.

What led you to study at the University of Melbourne?

Before I did a PhD in history, I worked at the Royal Women’s Hospital in a Clinical Research Midwife role and became interested in the ethical issues that human research presented. I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma of Health Ethics at the then Centre for Health and Society. It was a thoroughly stimulating and rewarding experience. I knew I wanted to study more, and consulted my lecturers for advice. Subsequently, I was approached about taking up a PhD Scholarship investigating the history of the care of women by nurses and midwives in Victoria, from the 1840s to the early 2000s.

What are your strongest memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

The course in Health Ethics with its five-day intensives and classes on Saturdays was an enquiring, supportive, and fun environment. I loved it. It was a great springboard for my next enrolment, as a PhD student in the School of Post-graduate Nursing. That was a fantastic experience too. The School was only seven years old and had a research program examining big challenges in healthcare from a clinical perspective. It was intellectually invigorating and there was great camaraderie among the students. Monthly, work-in-progress seminars were followed by dinner on Lygon Street with our academic supervisor.

Who motivated you at University?

I’ve had marvellous teachers: Drs Marilys Guillemin and Lynn Gillam in Health Ethics and, during my PhD, Drs Sioban Nelson, Janet McCalman, Robin Bell and numerous other mentors. These people are marvellous teachers - genuinely inquisitive, supportive and incredibly generous. I knew that doing a PhD would be hard work but I didn’t expect it to be enjoyable. My enrolments were voyages of discovery in which my supervisors played no small part.

What motivates you now?

The contribution of nurses and midwives to Australian history is an untold story: war, professionalising, unionism, education, workforce, technology, and practice history. The politics of healthcare is an immensely interesting arena too. It is easy to be motivated about, because I love archival research and material culture - the forms of evidence that make it possible to pursue historical questions.

I am committed to my volunteer role in the University’s fostering of a research culture that has ethics at its centre. I have been involved in human research ethics at the University since 1999, and I was postgraduate student representative to the University’s Central Human Research Ethics Committee for three years. I re-joined this committee after completing my PhD. The policies that we frame affect everyone in the research community, not least of all postgraduate students. For me, it is important that the University continues to educate everyone in the research community about the ethics of human research.

What drew you to your area of expertise?

I trained as a nurse and midwife in my first career and moved into women’s health research in my second. The offer of a PhD scholarship then drew me into an entirely different realm which harnesses my education, experience and interests. Postgraduate study turned out to be a marvellous coalescence of two clinical careers, leading to a third.

What do you love about what you do? 

I love the fact that history has relevance for today, whatever the time period, whatever the field of endeavour, or aspect of life. Historically speaking, nothing “begins” because there’s always a back story. Change unfolds over time, in stages, and always with antecedents. Understanding history helps us to understand who we are, where we have come from and why our ancestors were so tough. Just think of Horrible Histories!

What do you consider to be some of the highlights of your career? 

It was a highlight to be awarded my PhD. I’ve since had a CJ La Trobe Society Fellowship at State Library of Victoria in 2013, for work on midwifery and women’s health in nineteenth century Victoria - the subject of a book I am working on. In 2015, I was John Oxley Library Fellow at State Library of Queensland, examining the history of the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses. These Fellowships were fantastic opportunities to study history about midwives and nurses in depth.

In 2015, I was a consultant for Artemis Media on the television show Who Do You Think You Are? The episode featured the family history of actor, Toni Collette. Toni’s grandmother and a newborn baby died in 1953, within 24 hours of childbirth, leaving four little children and a bereft husband. But the family knew little about what had happened. I study the history of maternal death, and so my role was to guide Toni through the 1953 coronial inquest. Drawing on the available historical evidence, this episode answered lots of questions that Toni and her family had about this awful circumstance.

What advice do you have for current students?

Whatever the course of study happens to be, it is important for study to be a part of one’s life, without allowing it to become one’s life to the exclusion of everything else. Set an alarm during the day, to remind you to leave the desk and do some exercise. It is good for your body, and your brain especially.