Stack, Ellen Mary

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MB BS 1956 MPH 1981 FRACGP FACOM FRACMA

Ellen (Ella) Stack spent her early career as a General Practitioner in Darwin, becoming the first Lord Mayor of Darwin in 1979. After her retirement from full-time practice and Council duties, she was the Assistant Secretary of the Division of Aboriginal Health, Northern Territory and Secretary of the Department of Health of the Northern Territory.

After a year of residency at the Eastern Suburbs Hospital, Ella went into general practice in Western Sydney. She married Tom Lawler, an Agricultural Scientist, in 1957 and they went to live between Wee Waa and Narrabri in the Namoi Valley. In 1961, they moved to Darwin with their three boys under the age of three.

In Darwin, Ella was first employed for a few weeks mid-1961 by a local GP who had the misfortune of catching chicken pox. He had no hope of finding an emergency locum there at that time. This experience precipitated a visit to Sydney to attend a refresher course prior to restarting practice. In mid 1962, she took over as long-term locum. As one of two private practitioners in Darwin, this was the beginning of an exciting journey. According to Ella, “over the next 12 years I estimated that I delivered more than 2000 babies as a GP obstetrician.” At this time she also became a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners by examination.

Ella tells of how she entered local politics:

[A]s our boys were growing, up I became interested in local politics, which culminated in my being elected to the Darwin City Council in 1969. In 1974 I was elected Deputy Mayor. The arrival of Cyclone Tracey in the early hours of Christmas Day 1974 changed everything, 66 people were killed and the city was all but completely destroyed. We lost the top storey of our house. Fortunately no one in our family was injured, but my surgery was blown away and all my patient records were lost. There were very few buildings left standing in the city, fresh water was not available and there were no electrical power or sewerage services. Foodstuffs were practically non existent. Because the cyclone had destroyed the city’s infrastructure, the stage was set for the onset of many communicable diseases. It was decided to evacuate the city by air to the southern capitals as quickly as possible. As a temporary measure, the largely undamaged Darwin High School was used as a shelter for the homeless until they could be evacuated. I opened an emergency clinic within the Darwin High School, where I administered medical attention to the injured and immunised both adults and children against typhoid and tetanus. Of the pre-Tracey Darwin population of 45,000, 30,000 were evacuated by air in 11 days, and of these evacuees, many of whom needed medical attention as well immunisation, 11,000 passed through the Darwin High School.

I stayed on in Darwin after the cyclone and I became very involved in the reconstruction of the city. As I was elected Mayor of the City in May 1975, I automatically became a Member of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission. This was a very interesting time in the development of the new Darwin. A new building code was enacted to prevent similar devastation in the future. I became the first Lord Mayor of Darwin in 1979 when Queen Elizabeth II created the Lord Mayoralty of the city.

In 1979, Ella was made Commander of the British Empire for services rendered to the people of Darwin immediately following cyclone Tracey and during the reconstruction of the city of Darwin.

In 1975, she retired from general practice and worked part-time in a Community Health Clinic for two years. After stepping down as Lord Mayor in 1980, she enrolled in the Masters of Public Health course, submitting her thesis and being awarded that degree 25 years after her first graduation from the Faculty of Medicine. On her return to Darwin, she joined the Department of Health of the Northern Territory as the first Assistant Secretary of the Division of Aboriginal Health. It was the first Division devoted entirely to the health of Aboriginals. Later she became Secretary of the Department of Health of the Northern Territory.

During her medical life she has written several papers on health and immigration issues. She toured China lecturing on Aboriginal Traditional Medicines and lectured in the United States of America on the “Implications of Health Policy and Management Decisions on the Services for Australian Aborigines.”[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Stack, Ellen Mary. 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.