Woman De Garis, Mary Clementina

Campaigner, Child welfare advocate, Feminist, Medical practitioner and Obstetrician

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Mary De Garis was born in Charlton, northern Victoria, in 1881, to Elisha De Garis and Elizabeth Buncle. She and her twin sister were the oldest of six children. Elisha, a Methodist minister, became an entrepreneur in irrigation, real estate and dried fruits in Mildura. Elizabeth was a bush nurse and midwife.

The twins attended Methodist Ladies College, Melbourne, where Mary De Garis was Dux in 1898. The 31st woman to enrol in medicine, she began medical training in 1900 at the University of Melbourne. The medical women mentored each other; De Garis helped form the Victorian Women's Medical Students' Society. She graduated in 1905 and in 1907 was the second woman in Victoria to obtain a Doctorate of Medicine.

With excellent results she obtained a Resident position at the Melbourne Hospital. After this year, in 1907, she travelled to Muttaburra Hospital, Queensland, where she was the sole surgeon for 14 months. She then sailed to the UK, Europe and the USA to complete postgraduate courses, returning to Melbourne in 1910. A trip highlight was hearing the Pankhursts speak at suffrage rallies in London.

After practising in Melbourne she became Resident Surgeon at the Tibooburra Hospital, New South Wales. She met Colin Thomson, a farmer, and they became engaged in July 1914. On the outbreak of war, she offered her services to the Australian Army who rejected her - only nurses could enlist. Her fiancée, however, enlisted, travelling to Egypt, Gallipoli and France. De Garis travelled to London independently; on 4 August 1916 Thomson was killed at Pozieres.

Soon after, De Garis joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals, an organisation that offered female staffed, medical units to the Imperial allies. With the America Unit, based in Ostrovo, Macedonia, under the Serbian army, De Garis was Chief Medical Officer of the 200 bed tent hospital for 12 months. In winter it snowed and malaria was endemic. Her leadership style was authoritarian and some staff criticised her for not being consultative. She wrote, however, that she did not need an advisory committee and that she felt a heavy responsibility for her staff .

In September 1918, on her mother's death, De Garis resigned and returned to Melbourne, arriving in February 1919. For her war service she was awarded the medal of St Sava, 3rd class, by the Serbian Government, and two service medals from the British Government, but nothing from Australia.

By April 1919 she was practising as Geelong's first female medical practitioner. Here she lobbied for better female medical care, achieving success in having women elected to the hospital general committee (1925), the building of its first maternity ward (1924) and the establishment of its ante (1927) and postnatal (1932) clinics. When the maternity ward was commissioned in 1931, De Garis was appointed head of the unit. At a time of high maternal and infant death rates her record of 1,000 deliveries completed by 1938 without the loss of a mother was outstanding. In 1941 she became the honorary consultant to the Maternity Ward.

In the Depression she advocated better diets to improve mothers' and infants' health. Matron Walkowski, working with De Garis in the 1950s, wrote: 'Her dietary treatment of toxaemia of pregnancy was revolutionary at the time and became an accepted method in later years' (Geelong Heritage Centre, GH 957). As well she practised privately and worked at Geelong's Bethany Babies' Home, the Children's Welfare Service, infant welfare centres, kindergartens and schools.

De Garis also conducted research, keeping detailed records of 2,000 deliveries. She articulated a new medical definition of labour and sought to discover the causes of pain in childbirth. In her Theory of Obstetrics, (1930) she outlined her management of childbirth. Having 48 medical papers published in the Medical Journal of Australia, she presented regularly at British Medical Association conferences. Two other books and many Letters to Editors about social and economic issues were also published. She practised until her late seventies, well known in Geelong and Melbourne with a grateful female clientele. In 1954 a house in the grounds of the Geelong Hospital was named De Garis House in her honour.

Additional sources: Mary De Garis Papers (in private hands).

Published Resources


  • De Garis, M. C, Clinical Notes and Deductions of a Peripatetic, Being Fads and Fancies of a General Practitioner, Baillière, Tindall and Cox, London, England, 1926. Details
  • De Garis, M. C, The Theory of Obstetrics, Tindall and Cox, London, England, 1930. Details
  • Leneman, Leah, In the Service of Life: The Story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women's Hospitals, Mercat, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1994. Details

See also