Book tells story of Dr Mary De Garis - a Woman War Doctor ignored by historians

Media release
11 August 2014
Book tells story of Dr Mary De Garis - a Woman War Doctor ignored by historians

Women entering Geelong Hospital to have their babies can thank the pioneering spirit of Dr Mary De Garis who lobbied for the first maternity ward to be built at the hospital in the 1920s and by doing so reduced maternal and infant mortality.

"When Dr De Garis returned from World War One, she settled in Geelong setting up a practice as an obstetrician," explained Dr Ruth Lee who has a written a book on Dr De Garis' remarkable contributions including her experiences on the Balkan Front during the First World War.

The book Woman War Doctor, The Life of Mary De Garis was launched by Deakin University's Vice Chancellor Professor Jane Den Hollander and Professor Barry Jones.

"Dr De Garis is remarkable because her story is so unknown," explained Dr Lee.

"Her contribution to the Australian/Alllied war effort is not recognised in the Australian War Memorial and similarly her contribution to women's health has gone unrecognised by historians.

Dr Lee said Dr De Garis was born in 1881 in Charleton, Victoria. Her family helped to establish the dried fruit industry in Mildura.  Unusually for women at the time, Dr De Garis chose to pursue medicine and graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1905.

"Her life was extraordinary," Dr Lee said.  "She went straight to the outback to work because it was the only way she could get experience.

"Dr De Garis volunteered to join the Australian Army at the start of World War One but was refused so she travelled independently to the UK to help the war effort there, but also to be on hand for her fiancé should he get injured.

"He survived Gallipoli but was killed on the Western Front, so Dr De Garis joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals, founded 'as a direct response to War Office indifference to women'.

"The Scottish Womens' Hospitals ultimately established 14 medical units all staffed by women which served in Corsica, France, Macedonia, Russia, Salonika and Serbia."

Dr Lee said Dr De Garis worked as the Chief Medical Officer for the 200 bed tent hospital in Ostrovo, northern Macedonia in 1917-18.  "She was absolutely fearless, operating on wounded soldiers while bombs were dropping ".

"In the 1920s when the Geelong Hospital was rebuilt, Dr De Garis agitated for a maternity ward to be built, "Dr Lee said.

"It took seven years of hard lobbying before the labour ward, as it was called then, was commissioned in 1931, as the administrators at the time didn't see the need.

"Middle class women gave birth in private maternity hospitals while poor women called the midwife.

"Dr De Garis was instrumental in bringing Melbourne standards to Geelong in the 1920s."

Dr Lee said Dr De Garis was appointed as the first consultant in charge of the maternity ward.

"Before 1940 the rate of maternal mortality was one in 200.  In her first seven years Dr De Garis  delivered 1000 babies without losing a mother," Dr Lee said.

 "Her life wouldn't have been easy but she kept on going and kept working until she was 79 .

Dr Lee said Dr De Garis and other women in the medical profession were among the first wave of feminists who lobbied for and were successful in achieving recognition of a woman's right to control their own bodies.

"Before the law recognised equality in marriage, husbands owned their wives' bodies and their children," she said.

"The early feminists recognised that some women felt violated when they were being examined by medical men. The advent of women doctors improved life for women."

Further information:

Woman War Doctor: The Life of Mary De Garis

Share this story

Ruth Lee Author Ruth Lee. Photo Donna Edwards

Share this story

More like this

Media release