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Medical staff at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s hospital say the building is a “monument to a quack”, named after a doctor with a history of racist and homophobic commentary, who argued children could catch diseases from “coloured” nurses.
About 900 staff at the hospital have signed a petition to have the name changed. The Queensland government has announced its support for the change, citing confusion among members of the public who think the building is a private hospital.
The suggestion the name should be changed has been met with criticism in the local media, with suggestions the push is politically motivated. The name was chosen by the Campbell Newman-led Liberal National party government in 2013. Newman himself said this month the name change plan was “bulldust” and tweeted his opposition.
Medical staff approached by Guardian Australia said the root of their concern, which has not been a part of the public debate, was Cilento’s views and background. Those concerns included her questionable medical writing and offensive newspaper and magazine columns.
As “Medical Mother” and “Mother MD”, Cilento wrote columns in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and various women’s magazines.
In one 1953 column she argued the community should not tolerate homosexuality and described homosexuals as part of a “cult” and a “malignant tumour” on the national life.
In 1944, Cilento wrote that “it would not be in the best interests of children ... to be cared for by coloured labour”.
“As one who has employed practically every type of coloured domestic that would be available to Australia ... I can say that there is not one type to whom I would care to hand over my children, in the early, impressionable years of their life.
Cilento wrote that children should not be “in close contact with people of lower standards of life and utterly different standards of moral conduct” and that “practically all Asiatic and Melanesian races are walking reservoirs of tropical diseases .”
One nurse at the hospital told Guardian Australia the columns had been passed among staff and that much of the objection to retaining Cilento’s name was they “don’t want to work in a place that is a monument to a quack”.
“The ideas might be from the 1930s, but that’s still the name we have at the front. It’s insulting to the staff who work here and provide these kids with excellent care. Even if she did make some contribution, it’s like the government saying we’re happy to name a hospital after someone who held those views,” the nurse said.
Newman, again on Twitter, responded to a post about Cilento’s views on homosexuality by saying “Jefferson ... had slaves & ALP had white oz policy”.
Most of Cilento’s work was focused on the health and wellbeing of mothers and their children, and some of her views came to be considered ahead of their time. She advocated for natural childbirth and family planning. She also encouraged people to take large amounts of vitamins.
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Frank Bowling, a former Queensland doctor and now the director of pathology at Royal Melbourne hospital, said that of all Cilento’s writing, she published “a very small number” of medical articles that were peer-reviewed.
He pointed to one article, published in the Australian Nursing Journal, that argued high doses of vitamin C be given to children to “protect them against snake bite”.
“My view of that article, that probably put hundreds of kids’ lives at risk,” Bowling said.
He contrasted Cilento’s contribution with Queensland doctors John Lockhart Gibson and Jefferis Turner, who researched the dangers of lead paint to children.
“They worked hard for many years, published in international journals. They probably in Australia saved hundreds of thousands of children from damage due to lead paint. And around the world they probably saved millions of children.
“If you wanted to have it as a world-leading hospital, you should be naming it after someone [whose work] reflected that.
“I thought [naming the hospital after Cilento] was insulting at the time.”
The state’s health minister, Steven Miles, when he announced a public consultation period last month, said he had been asked to change the name by the hospital medical staff association and the children’s hospital foundation.
“These groups support a name change, and so do I,” he said.
“I’ve had doctors tell me parents are worried they can’t afford treatment at Lady Cilento Children’s hospital because they think it’s a private hospital. I don’t want even the slightest risk that parents think they can’t or shouldn’t have their child treated at this hospital if they need it.”
Miles said his department would consult with the Cilento family and that “it may be appropriate” to subsequently rename a part of the hospital after Phyllis Cilento.