Woman War Doctor: The Life of Mary De Garis


 Woman War Doctor: The Life of Mary De Garis

Book author: Dr Ruth Lee

Woman War Doctor: Mary De Garis by Dr Rith Lee
Woman War Doctor: The Life of Mary De Garis            by Dr Ruth Lee
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Mary Clementina De Garis (16 Dec 1881 – 18 Nov 1963)

De Garis was a pioneering doctor in the early 20th century, one of the first women “medicals” to graduate from Melbourne University.

From an established Mildura family, she practised in outback Australia before serving in World War One as a doctor in Macedonia.  After the war she settled back in Australia, in Geelong where she was the city’s first female obstetrician.  She provided safe childbirth before antibiotics and blood transfusions and generations of woman treasured her.

She was a medical practitioner and obstetrician, also a campaigner, child welfare advocate and feminist.

Her life and loves and the struggles she faced as a leader in her field are the subject of this fascinating biography.

The De Garis Family
  • De Garis was born in Charleton, northern Victoria, Australia in 1881.
  • Her father, Elisha De Garis, was a Methodist minister, and then an entrepreneur in irrigation, real estate and dried fruits in Mildura.
  • Her mother, Elizabeth Buncle, was a bush nurse and midwife.
  • De Garis and her twin sister were the oldest of six children.
Final years of school: 1898 – 1899
  • For her last years of schooling, to prepare for university, De Garis moved from country Victoria to attend Methodist Ladies College, in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.
  • She was intellectually talented, and won the prize for the top student of the school in 1898.
Studied Medicine: University of Melbourne: 1900 – 1905
  • In 1900, De Garis began medical training at the University of Melbourne.
  • The medical women mentored each other
  • De Garis helped form the Victorian Women’s Medical Students’ Society.
  • She was the 31st woman to enroll in medicine at the University of Melbourne.
  • With excellent results she became a Resident at the Melbourne Hospital in 1905-1906.
  • In 1907, she became the second woman in Victoria to graduate with a Doctorate of Medicine.
Surgeon at Muttaburra Hospital: 1907 – 1908
  • In 1907, she travelled to Muttaburra Hospital, Queensland, where she was the sole surgeon for 14 months.
  • She went straight to the outback to work because it was the quickest way a female medical graduate could get experience.
Travel and Study: 1908 – 1910
  • De Garis sailed to the UK, Europe and the USA and completed postgraduate courses.
  • She attended suffrage rallies in London and heard the Pankhursts speak.
Resident Surgeon at the Tibooburra Hospital: 1911 – 1915
  • She briefly practiced in Melbourne
  • Then she became Resident Surgeon at the Tibooburra Hospital, New South Wales
  • It was a small desert settlement in outback Australia near the border with Queensland and South Australia.
Death of her fiancé
  • She met Colin Thomson, a farmer, and they became engaged in July 1914, just two weeks before Britain declared war on Germany.
  • Colin enlisted and served in Egypt, Gallipoli and France.
  • He died at Pozieres, France in August 1916.
Australian & British Armies rejected female doctors
  • The policy in both the Australian and British Armies was to not accept female doctors.
  • Feminists set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, 14 medical units staffed by women.
  • The British army refused their support,  so they supported the armies of Britain’s allies in Macedonia, Serbia, Corsica, France, Russia and Salonika.


World War I: Medical Officer in Macedonia: 1916 – 1918
  • On the outbreak of World War I, De Garis offered her services to the Australian Army.
  • They rejected her, so she travelled to London at her own expense and joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.
  • She was both a patriot and a feminist.
  • Dr De Garis worked as the Chief Medical Officer for the America Unit under the Serbian army
  • She worked in a 200 bed tent hospital in Ostrovo, northern Macedonia for 12 months in 1917-1918.
  • She was fearless, operating on wounded soldiers while bombs were dropping. In winter it snowed. Malaria was endemic.
  • Her leadership style was authoritarian and some staff criticised her for not being consultative. She wrote that she  felt a heavy responsibility for her staff and did not need an advisory committee.
  • She resigned in September 1918, on her mother’s death
  • The Serbian Government awarded her a medal.
  • The British Government awarded her two service medals.
  • The Australian government made no award.
Geelong’s first female medical practitioner from 1919
  • De Garis returned to Melbourne in February 1919.
  • She was practising as Geelong’s first female medical practitioner by April 1919.

The Geelong Hospital was rebuilt in the 1920s

  • De Garis lobbied for a maternity ward for seven years. The administrators didn’t see the need.  Middle class women gave birth in private maternity hospitals while poor women called the midwife.
  • When the maternity ward was commissioned in 1931, De Garis became head of the unit.

In those years, there were high maternal and infant death rates.  Her record of 1,000 deliveries completed by 1938 without the loss of a mother was outstanding.

During the Depression she improved the health of mothers and infants by promoting improved diets.  Some of her interventions for pregnant women were revolutionary at the time and later became  accepted practice.

In 1954, the Geelong Hospital named a house in the hospital grounds De Garis House.

Research and writing

De Garis:

  • Kept detailed records of 2,000 deliveries.
  • Outlined her management of childbirth in her book: Theory of Obstetrics (1930)
  • Authored two other books
  • Authored 48 papers published in medical journals
  • Presented regularly at British Medical Association conferences.
  • Authored many Letters to Editors about social and economic issues.
Death in 1963

Her life was not easy, but she practiced until  she was 79.  She was well-known in Geelong and Melbourne and had many grateful female patients.

De Garis died in 1963 in Geelong, aged 81.

About the Author: Ruth Lee

In the menu at the top of the page click on “ABOUT

Talks about Mary De Garis

Ruth Lee has given many presentations on the life and times of Mary De Garis.

For coming talks and other news,
in the menu at the top of the page, click on “NEWS“.

To buy the book

In the menu at the top of the page click on “BUY

Links to Related Sites

Dr Ruth Lee’s writing about De Garis is on other sites and in newspaper articles.

The Publisher’s Site: Buy the book here.

Deakin University Media Release

Deakin University: Research Show Case

Scottish Women’s Hospitals: Section on De Garis

The Great War

Women in Australia

Australian Nurses in World War I

Geelong Independent Newspaper

“Determined to Serve: The Little-known Story of Mary De Garis”
The Age: Article by  Michelle Moo, April 2015
“The forgotten Australian women doctors of the Great War”
Heather Sheard: Post-doctoral researcher at University of Melbourne: The Conversation: 17 March 2015: