Early women graduates

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The University of Sydney Medical School was the first to admit women students.[1] In this regard the Dean, Anderson Stuart seems, on the surface at least, to have been rather progressive in his views. In his book The Melbourne Medical School 1862–1962 Kenneth Russell cites a letter of 1885 from Anderson Stuart to David Grant, Lecturer in Materia Medica at Melbourne University, in which Anderson Stuart both rationally and logically advances the right of women to enter on the study of medicine:

I have had a lady (Dagmar Berne) in my classes for over two years, as gentle and modest a lady as I have ever seen, as such she came to us and as such she has remained… As a teacher I have never experienced the slightest difficulty in saying what I have to say in the presence of ladies and I have never attempted to gloss over certain subjects because ladies were present…[1]

The apparent liberalism of these views, however, must be regarded with some reservation as the story of Dagmar Berne, the first woman to begin the study of medicine in Australia, seems to show: Dagmar enrolled in Medicine in 1885 but appears to have failed her First Professional Examination that year, for she is again listed as a second year student in the 1886 Calendar. That year, she passed her First Professional Examination in Medicine entering Medicine III in 1887 and Medicine IV in 1888. She evidently failed the Second Professional Examination in 1888 since she remained in Medicine IV in 1889. At the end of that year she passed Anatomy and Physiology, the first two units of her Second Professional Examinations, but did not pass Materia Medica and Pathology. She was given deferred examinations in these in March 1890 which she failed. After this last failure, Dagmar left Sydney and went to England as she felt that she was being obstructed from passing her examinations at the University of Sydney. At London University she readily qualified in 1893 and began resident work in a hospital in Tottenham, England. When she returned to Sydney in 1895, she set up practice in Macquarie Street in 1895 and was only the second woman to register to practice as a doctor with the Medical Board of New South Wales.[1] Sadly, she died five years later at the young age of thirty-four. She is commemorated at the University of Sydney by a prize for proficiency in the final Barrier Examination.

By making the break into a male stronghold, Dagmar had opened the way for other women to follow. Yet, in the first ten years of its existence, the University of Sydney Medical School produced only two women graduates: Iza Coghlan and Grace Robinson both graduated in 1893. However, once the doors of the Medical School had been opened to admit women, there was a small but steady stream of female enrolments and graduations. In 1898, there were four women graduates: Harriett Biffin, Ada Affleck, Julia Carlisle Thomas and Alice Newton. By 1902 there were 11 women graduates, including Lucy Gullet. The next five years saw the graduation of Constance d’Arcy, Susie O’Reilly, Margaret Harper and Jessie Aspinall. In different ways, each of these women became prominent figures in what proved to be a continuing struggle for the general acceptance of women practitioners.

  • Iza Coghlan became the first Sydney graduate to establish private practice in her home city, thus setting an important example and precedent for subsequent Sydney women graduates, and went on later to help form the New South Wales Medical Women’s Association.
  • Grace Robinson formed the Professional Women’s Association, whose objective was to bring together professional women interested in improving the social conditions of women and children.
  • Julia Carlisle Thomas established the Sydney Medical Mission.
  • Harriett Biffin and Lucy Gullett played key roles in the establishment of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children.
  • Jessie Aspinall was the first woman appointed Resident at the Prince Alfred Hospital.
  • Susie O’Reilly’s battle with Sydney Hospital subsequently opened the doors of that institution to receive women residents.
  • Constance d’Arcy became the first woman ever to be elected to the Senate of the University of Sydney.
  • Margaret Harper was the first Lecturer in Diseases of the Newborn at the University of Sydney, the moving spirit of the Tresillian Mothercraft Centres, a Foundation Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and an early supporter of the Rachel Forster Hospital.

Although Dagmar had opened the way for women at the University of Sydney, the doors of medical institutions in New South Wales were still fairly firmly closed to women graduates at the turn of the century. After her graduation in 1905, Susie O’Reilly became a cause célèbre in her attempts to break down these subsequent barriers to women practitioners gaining experience side by side with men in public rather than private practice. Susie’s unsuccessful application to the Royal Prince Alfred, North Shore and Sydney Hospitals led to a public outcry from the press and organisations such as the Women’s Progressive Organisation against discrimination based on sex. Having passed fourth on the merit list in her year, Susie, had she been male, would have automatically qualified to be considered for residency at one of the major hospitals. Yet her application to Sydney Hospital was declined on the grounds that it had no suitable accommodation for women practitioners. As this was the main reason given for refusal, pressure was brought to bear on the Premier of New South Wales. The Premier’s Department promised to look into the matter and, at the end of 1905, the Board of Directors of Sydney Hospital moved in favour of alterations to enable the Hospital to accept women in the future. In the meanwhile, however, Susie had successfully applied for a residency at Adelaide General Hospital.

At the end of the same year, 1905, Jessie Aspinall completed her finals at the University of Sydney and was offered a residency by the Medical Board of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Yet, the Conjoint Board refused to ratify the Hospital’s decision. This provoked a strong public outcry. Jessie’s father, women’s organisations, the press and the public at large joined forces in what was basically a battle over women’s rights. Anderson Stuart, being both Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Chairman of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, was understandably expected to express an opinion on the matter. He supported Jessie’s case unequivocally: she had succeeded ‘in open competition with men’ and was therefore entitled to the position.

Public opinion, Anderson Stuart’s stand and finally the Premier’s intervention led to Jessie being reinstated, the first woman to be appointed to one of the main general hospitals in Sydney.

Prior to this, experience could be gained in private practice, by going interstate or overseas, or by working at the Sydney Medical Mission, which was established in 1900 with the objective of alleviating medical problems among the indigent populace of the inner city. The instigator here was Julia Carlile Thomas, and so the Mission became a centre of clinical experience for other women graduates as well. As the institution was almost wholly staffed by voluntary workers and its income barely covered expenditure, the Medical Mission was not a viable economic alternative to private practice or a general hospital appointment for any recent graduate. It did, however, serve the function for which it was originally established and in its time had help and encouragement from such prominent medical figures as J T Wilson, Charles Bickerton Blackburn, Margaret Harper, Jessie Aspinall and Susie O’Reilly. The Medical Mission functioned almost until the end of the World War I, but finally had to be closed down due largely to the fact that the war very seriously depleted the number of practitioners available to work in it.

The time was now ripe for women graduates to attempt what had not been possible when there was only a handful of them – namely, found a hospital staffed by women for women. The impetus came from Lucy Gullett who, after visiting the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne during its 25 anniversary celebrations in 1921, came back to Sydney determined to start a similar hospital in her home state. Together with Harriett Biffin she founded the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children in 1922.

Citation: Mellor, Lise and Witton, Vanessa (2008) Early women graduates. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.