Siedlecky, Stefania Winifred

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MB BS 1943 MSc 1978 (Lond)

Stefania Siedlecky was one of the first two women Resident Medical Officers at St Vincent’s Hospital. A general practitioner, she became passionate about women’s health. In 1974 she was one of the founders of the Leichhardt Women’s Health Centre and one of the first doctors at the Preterm Foundation. In the same year she was appointed as the first Consultant in Family Planning at the Commonwealth Department of Health in Canberra.

Stefania Siedlecky was born in Blackheath in 1921. After graduating from Medicine in 1943 she became a Resident Medical Officer at St Vincent’s Hospital, one of the first two1591 women appointed by the Hospital. She spent a year at Crown St Women’s Hospital and two years as Assistant Superintendent at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children. She worked in general practice in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains from 1949 to 1958 and in Surry Hills from 1959 to 1971. She also worked as a gynaecologist at the Rachel Forster Hospital in Sydney from 1960 to 1974.

Due in large part to her experiences during the World War II, Stefania developed a lifelong interest in women’s health. She recalled later, “working in a women’s hospital during the war years I saw women die from infection and haemorrhage following illegal abortion, and the hypocrisy of doctors who would do a discreet safe abortion for their private patients.” One doctor went so far as to say, “I am here to teach you how to deliver babies, not how to prevent them.” Such experiences had a profound effect on her future career and values.

Throughout her career, Stefania was a strong advocate for women to have adequate information about and access to contraception at a time when it was unfashionable to do so. In 1971, she joined Family Planning NSW, where she became a clinic and training doctor. Stefania worked as ‘an enthusiastic volunteer’ in school and community education programs and gave talks on sex, contraception, pain relief in childbirth and menopause to various women’s groups. In 1974, Stefania helped to establish the Leichhardt Women’s Health Centre and the Preterm Foundation, two schemes which helped bring safe, legal abortion into the open in New South Wales. In 1974 she was appointed as Consultant in Family Planning in the Commonwealth Department of Health, initially for six months but eventually for 12 years. In 1976 she became Adviser (later Senior Adviser) in Family Planning and Women’s Health. Among her successes in the Department of Health were the first National Women’s Health Conference in 1975, the establishment of the Action Centre for young people in Melbourne in 1976 with Family Planning Victoria, and the later establishment of the Warehouse and the Fairfield Multicultural Program in Sydney with Family Planning NSW. She worked through successive governments, pleased that she “had been able to maintain the interest in women’s health.” During these years, she oversaw the allocation of funding for research projects and for special units in each state for doctor education in family planning.

In 1978 Stefania obtained a Master of Science in Medical Demography from the University of London. Her Master’s thesis Sex and Contraception before Marriage was published in 1979. In 1979–80 she worked for 2 months with the United Nations developing preparatory papers for UN Mid-Decade Conference for Women in Copenhagen in 1980. She was a member of the Australian delegation to the Mid Decade Conference, the International Conference on Population in Mexico in 1984 and the UN End of Decade Conference for Women in Nairobi, 1985. She helped prepare Australia’s position papers on women’s health and family planning issues. She fondly recalls working with other women at the Mexico conference to have the “Role and Status of Women” given separate consideration instead of being included under the title “Reproduction and the Family”. Stefania retired in 1986 and was invited to join the UNFPA Special Advisory Committee on Women, Population and Development from 1987 to 1993. She became a member of the Board of the Family Planning Association in ACT and later in NSW from 1987 to 2000, including a two year term as President. Over this time, Stefania established and chaired the FP NSW Ethics Committee, and from 1989 to 1995 represented Family Planning Australia on the ESEAOR (East & South East Asia & Oceania Region) Council, helping set up its women’s subcommittee. She was also on the Board of the Preterm Foundation, and Chair of its Ethics Committee from 1987 to 2004.

In 1989, Stefania was appointed Honorary Associate in Demography at Macquarie University, where she is involved in epidemiological research and teaching. In 1990, she co-authored and published the book, Populate and Perish – Australian Women’s Fight for Birth Control. She has published numerous papers, both locally and internationally, on the use of contraception, teenage pregnancy and abortion and is a member of numerous women’s organisations.

In 1987 Stefania was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for public service particularly in the field of women’s health”.[1] Even now, Stefania continues to look to the future, “in spite of our successes,” she stresses, “we need to remain vigilant to make sure we don’t lose what it took us so long to gain.”[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Siedlecky, Stefania Winifred. 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.