Woman Latham, Eleanor Mary


Charity Worker
Alternative Names
  • Latham, Ella

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Ella Latham was born in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote in 1878, the only child of teachers Richard and Fanny Tobin. Educated at University High School she graduated with a BA from the University of Melbourne in 1904 and found work as a teacher. Three years later she married lawyer, John (later Sir John) Greig Latham, later Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia and Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. The couple had three children. In the early years of her marriage she focused on the welfare of her family, but maintained her connection with women of education through her membership of the Lyceum Club, rising to the position of president in 1925. A career, she argued, was not essential, but women who had had access to higher education were 'better equipped' for home life (Advertiser, 20 August 1940).

Latham's move into the world of philanthropy began with membership of a suburban auxiliary of the Children's Hospital, but her talents were quickly recognised resulting in an invitation to join the hospital's committee of management in 1926. As president from 1933 to 1954 she worked with the medical director and lady superintendent to transform the institution. Central to this reform was the decision to introduce a medical advisory board to make recommendations to the committee on senior staff appointments, countering the power of the conservative honorary medical staff. With strong links to the University of Melbourne the advisory board was critical in positioning the hospital to become a centre of research and treatment in paediatric medicine (Williams).

As her husband's career prospered Latham faced increasing demands in her role as a society wife and hostess. Her involvement with the hospital was not incompatible with this role but also provided her with an area in which she could exercise her own autonomy. She developed a particular interest in children with disabilities, founding the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and overseeing the hospital's development of its orthopaedic facilities at Frankston. In 1936 she made headlines by criticising polio reformer Sister Kenny, accusing her of withholding details of her methods from orthodox doctors, 'the men who are spending their lives on this problem' (Argus, 8 April 1936). She was also a founder of the women of the University fund and a co-patron of the university women's patriotic association during the second world war.

In 1946 Latham launched an appeal to completely rebuild the hospital adjacent to the medical research institutions allied with the University (Argus, 9 February 1946). She was awarded a CBE in 1954 (The Argus, 1 January 1954), the year she retired from public life, after having carefully groomed Elisabeth Murdoch to take her place at the hospital and to oversee the relocation that Latham had initiated. She died in 1964.

Published Resources


  • Williams, Howard, From Charity to Teaching Hospital: Ella Latham's Presidency 1933-54: The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Howard Williams, Melbourne, Victoria, 1989. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources