Woman Brodrick, Ida Bell

Medical Practitioner
Alternative Names
  • Matthews, Ida

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Ida Bell Brodrick, always known as Bell, was born in Woollahra, Sydney in 1919, the middle child of Bob and Milly Broderick. The family moved to Brighton in Melbourne when Bell was seven, a move that in some ways determined her future as a pioneering medical doctor. An avid student first at Elwood Central School, then at Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC) in Burwood, Brodrick had ambitions to be a vet. Unfortunately, the closest course to qualify as a veterinarian was at the University of Sydney, and Bell's father did not want her to travel so far and live interstate on her own. Instead, she enrolled in an honours degree in science at the University of Melbourne from which she graduated in 1940; during the course she met her future husband, fellow student Rodney Matthews. She then completed a degree in medicine, graduating as a doctor in 1944 - one of only four women in her year.

According to her son Gordon Matthews, Brodrick was in many ways quite conservative and by no means classified herself as a feminist, but nevertheless became a prominent doctor at a time when few women practised medicine. She showed particular leadership in children and women's health. In 1951, after residencies at St Vincent's, the Queen Victoria and the Royal Children's hospitals, she was appointed a medical officer for the City of Melbourne, first in the area of communicable diseases, then for child and maternal health. In this latter role she was instrumental in developing the infant welfare centres that proliferated through inner Melbourne during this time. She eventually became Chief Medical Officer for the City of Melbourne, the only woman to be appointed to this role. As such she was head of the City Health Department and in charge of its health-related workers.

As her career progressed so successfully, she was also devoted to raising her own family. She and Rodney Matthews, then working as an agricultural journalist, married in 1948 and bought a house in Kew, Melbourne, where she lived for over sixty years. Unable to have children of their own, the couple adopted four children who they raised with the help of live-in mothercraft nurses, many of whom became life-long family friends. In addition, Rodney worked flexible hours and performed many household tasks. Brodrick can be seen as a pioneer in successfully arranging family life to accommodate all members, as well as a pioneer in medicine.

Brodrick continued throughout her life to study and expand her intellectual interests. In 1963, she was awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship to study in London, where, having taken her whole family with her, she completed a Diploma in Child Health. After Rodney Matthews died in 1978, she also completed a graduate diploma in Criminology (1982), a BA (1991) and a Master of Psychological Medicine (1989) at the University of Melbourne. This last, awarded when she was seventy years old, was based on research around the access women prisoners had to their children - a topic of great interest and concern to Broderick for both medical and social reasons.

Awarded the OAM in 2005, Brodrick continued to work and study until her retirement at the age of eighty-three. She died in 2011, aged ninety-two. Her son admiringly ascribed Broderick's achievements to her incredible stubbornness and her resistance to doing anything she did not want to. He said, 'She was the master of her universe. She controlled the world she inhabited. She constantly had people running around her, doing her bidding, both in her private and professional lives … When Bell snapped her fingers everyone came running but when she thanked them with that lovely smile they never seemed to mind.' It was a style of leadership that served her well (Matthews).

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