Ruth L Lee,  Woman War Doctor: The Life of Mary De Garis 

Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014, x + 197pp, ISBN: 9781925003420 (p/b), RRP: AUS$39.95

Pioneering Australian woman doctor Mary de Garis comes to life in this stimulating biography by Australian author and academic Dr Ruth Lee, who captures Mary De Garis’s fearless determination, along with the time and place that gave rise to her remarkable medical career. The book is based on research conducted by Lee for her PhD thesis in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University in 2011.

De Garis was the thirty-first woman to enrol in medicine at the University of Melbourne and graduated in 1905. Unlike many early Australian woman doctors, De Garis was a prolific writer, and Lee has taken excellent advantage of the relatively substantial medical and personal treasure trove left behind. She draws from the doctor’s 48 journal articles, five books (including three on economics), three incomplete autobiographical memoirs, as well as other articles, letters, and charts, to paint a portrait of a tireless and dedicated obstetrician and citizen, passionate about her work and ideals. Lee was also fortunate to access oral history interviews with De Garis family members, colleagues and friends, and benefited particularly from the doctor’s two great nieces, who each held six containers of research material in Sydney and Canberra. The result is an absorbing and balanced biography.

Mary Clementina De Garis, or ‘Clemmie’, as she was known, was a twin and the eldest of six children, and Lee shows us the strength of character that was apparent early in her childhood in Mildura. De Garis’s thinking and intellect was consistently nurtured by unconventional Methodist parents, whose beliefs about women, education and nation building were well ahead of their time. We watch De Garis’s self-confidence bloom as she is crowned dux of the progressive Methodist Ladies College, then through committed hard work, achieve outstanding results in medicine at Melbourne University. At the close of chapter four, Lee presents a memorable image of De Garis walking the streets of Melbourne with her stethoscope draped around her neck, and we can imagine how conspicuous the young self-confident lady doctor must have appeared to the ordinary Australian in 1905.

Thought-provoking chapters recount De Garis’s developing feminist ideas as she attempts to enter the medical profession in Melbourne and gain employment in an Australian hospital in the first decades of the twentieth century. Like other women doctors of her generation, this was a gargantuan task. Her trek to country towns to serve as the sole surgeon in Muttaburra in outback Queensland and in the desert town of Tibooburra in western New South Wales also reflect the experiences of early Australian medical women, who were welcomed by remote and regional communities desperate to attract doctors. Lee effectively portrays the frequent loneliness white, single, middle-class women doctors endured in these circumstances. In De Garis’s own words: ‘being constantly on duty, even when ill … and of making an unfortunate marriage … for the intellectual isolation is very great … .’ (p 45). She would meet the love of her life in Tibooburra by her thirtieth birthday.

By far the most fascinating are the six chapters exploring De Garis’s contribution to World War I. We feel her rejection by the Australian Army Medical Corps and applaud her subsequent independent journey to London (with a packed revolver), to contribute to the war effort and be near her fiancée at the Western Front. Like other women doctors she was told she could not enlist in the British Army and should: ‘go home and sit still.’ Eventually she joined the feminist Scottish Women’s Hospitals and was appointed surgeon and chief medical officer to the 200-bed tent hospital in Ostrovo, Macedonia, in 1917-18. It is compelling reading.

Most arresting are the depictions of women surgeons wearing fur coats whilst performing critical operations in relentlessly demanding weather. Lee reveals the incredible challenges of daily life at the medical unit, with De Garis dealing capably with snow, hurricanes, wasps, malaria, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, and frozen surgical fluids, whilst undertaking amputations and treating gas gangrene, bullet and bomb wounds of allied servicemen. De Garis undertook these duties dangerously close to the Balkan Front, whilst carrying the immense grief of her fiancée having been killed in action. The material is deeply moving. Despite being awarded medals by the Serbian and British governments, De Garis’s war service has never been formally recognised by Australia.

As Geelong’s first female medical practitioner after the end of World War I, Lee presents De Garis’s notable contributions to obstetrics in the community, her protracted lobbying for a maternity ward at Geelong Hospital, and her ground-breaking interventions for pregnant women that later became accepted practice. During the 1930s, when infant and maternal death rates were high, De Garis held an exceptional record for safe childbirth, particularly considering blood transfusions and antibiotics were not yet available.

Although inspired by her numerous pioneering achievements, Lee is not afraid to present an honest appraisal of De Garis’s personality, and portrays career and life incidents that attest to her outspokenness, and at times, iron-willed intractability. This is shown through her lifelong personal and professional relationships, and is evident in both her writing and speaking. Lee shows she was also a perceptive and well-loved practitioner to many generations of Geelong women, enjoying the respect of grateful patients there and in Melbourne.

The long and purposeful life of De Garis was also marked by ongoing personal tragedy, and Lee depicts the singular lives of her politicised and at times notorious siblings in intriguing parallel stories. The doctor and her one surviving brother’s interesting forays into economic and social reform, and their longstanding publicly espoused ideas for a new money and social system in Australia, reveal their idealism, intellect, patriotism, and energetic leadership even at an advanced age.

Highly recommended.


Reviewed by Dr Vanessa Witton, October 2018

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