Isbister, Jean Sinclair

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MB BS 1939 FRACP DCH (London)

Jean Sinclair (Clair) Isbister was a pioneer in the development of hospital and outpatient services for mothers and babies, particularly in the area of childbirth practices and post-natal care. Her epidemiological studies at the Royal North Shore Hospital and Tresillian led to the establishment of numerous programs for mothers, babies and the care of children.

After graduation, Clair completed her internship at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Children’s Hospital. In 1940, her husband was posted to the Tamworth RAAF Base and Clair went with him, and worked later in Armidale covering for the local GP’s who were deployed in the forces. Later, she and her husband went to England and completed their Physicians Memberships, before returning to Sydney with their young family. Even as a mother of four, Clair did some work at the Children’s Hospital and began working for Tresillian under the founder, Margaret Harper. She stayed working for Tresillian for the next twenty years, which enabled her to conduct some of her research studies in a non-hospital environment and use the data for comparison. At the same time, Clair began giving weekly radio talks on ABC Radio, speaking on many general medical topics, but mostly focussing on childbirth, child care and breastfeeding. Broadcasting policy of the time still dictated that such speakers remain anonymous, yet like Margaret Harper, she became well known, particularly amongst rural listeners, as ‘the Lady Doctor’. Reflecting back on these shows she said, “they were so important for country women who weren’t getting information from other sources.”

In 1948, she was appointed Consultant Paediatrician at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney and subsequently at the Blue Mountains District Hospital. At Royal North Shore she was appointed to the care of newborns, although her role was later broadened to include older children. Clair also became the Hospital’s first Visiting Specialist. She stayed at the Royal North Shore Hospital in varied capacities until her retirement in 1980, during this time conducting much of her medical studies of children. Very early on at ‘the Royal’, she began studies of infections in children and established that newborns were contracting infections from the hospital environments, rather than their mothers. Her role at Tresillian helped her compare the different patterns of infection babies were presenting with in a non-hospital environment. This was the first time that cross-infection studies had been carried out in Australian maternity hospitals, and her findings led to significant changes in practice in maternity hospitals.

Clair’s studies of lactating mothers resulted in changes in the management and teaching of breastfeeding to novice mothers. She also implemented simple techniques for looking after premature babies, for example, before the days of reliable incubators, she set up cots with electric blankets designed for pedigree Greyhound dogs. She was also responsible for the implementation of pre-delivery rooms for women in labour and their partners at Royal North Shore, these being the first of their kind in Australian hospitals. Likewise, although there was some education for expectant parents, Clair established the first Preparation for Parenthood programs that were given by specialist doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. Her program included education on the management of pregnancy, childbirth and baby care, including lactation. With Clair’s guidance, Royal North Shore was also the first hospital in Australia to establish daytime visiting rites for parents of sick children and provide play facilities in the children’s wards.

Working for the hospitals and Tresillian, and having conducted a major study of children with severe asthma, Clair became highly knowledgeable about allergies and asthma in children. She served as a volunteer for the Asthma Foundation for 36 years, during which time she developed the Asthma Swimming Program in which children were taught not only to swim, but also taught therapeutic techniques for breathing. The children’s breathing capacity was tested prior to commencement of the program and were medically monitored throughout, thus enabling them to participate without fear. As part of her work with the Foundation, Clair also edited The Asthma Welfarer for 30 years.

Since 1956, Clair has published numerous articles on topics relating to child care and child-birth; her seminal book Breastfeeding for Modern Mothers is currently being revised.

In 1969, she was awarded an OBE for her services to mothers and babies, and was awarded a CBE in 1976 for her services to medicine.

Clair is now 90 and living in retirement in the Blue Mountains.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Isbister, Jean Sinclair. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.