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Watts, AC 2015, 'Maternal insanity in Victoria, Australia: 1920-1973', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright AC Watts 2015


This thesis examines puerperal insanity and child-birth related illnesses in early twentieth-century Australia. It investigates the psychiatric and social discourses that linked motherhood and birthing with mental illness. The research draws on clinical case notes of thirty-one patients, including a member of the researcher’s family, Ada (pseudonym). These women were committed to Royal Melbourne Reception House, Victoria, between the years 1920 and 1936.

The work examines the ways that nineteenth-century medical interest in women’s diseases remained highly influential on twentieth-century ideas of gender, mothers and mental illness. In particular, a diagnosis of puerperal insanity could be prompted by any one of several symptoms; violent and harmful behaviour, hallucinations or mania. It usually occurred within the days or weeks following childbirth, and for mothers the condition was known to cause death, suicide, and at its worst, infanticide, at a time usually associated with joy within the family.

Scholars generally agree that the diagnosis of ‘puerperal insanity’ belonged to the nineteenth century, when child-birth was connected to a host of women’s diseases perceived as affecting their brain. However, the thirty-one women’s patient clinical notes used in this study illustrate that puerperal insanity remained a valid cause to commit mothers in Australia, even though it was no longer in use in Britain and the United States by the turn of the century, according to historical studies cited in this thesis. This thesis is significant in its contribution of new knowledge to the history of puerperal insanity and maternal insanity in Australia, as no other work has been undertaken on these topics in the early twentieth century context. It therefore seeks to address this gap.

This thesis applies feminist poststructuralist approaches to the ways both psychiatric and lay language constructed mothers as ‘unfit.’ It is set in the social context of the federated nation, where women continued to be caught in nineteenth-century gendered power relations in both the patriarchal nature of families, psychiatry and medicine. It provides distinctive aspects of puerperal insanity unique to the context of twentieth-century Australian women, as well as to medical and psychiatric contexts and conditions. This thesis argues that given the ‘othering’ of mothers in psychiatric and social discourses within the patriarchal society, a diagnosis of puerperal insanity and birth-related illness was often arbitrary, and that it instead should be understood as directly linked to cultural beliefs about the home, family and the mother role.