Woman Stack, Ellen (Ella) (1929 - )


Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Mayor and Medical practitioner

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in Sydney in 1929, Ellen Mary (Ella) Stack studied medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating MBBS in 1956. After moving with her family to Darwin in 1961, she became well known in the community, especially after the important role she played in the immediate aftermath of the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. She was elected the first woman Mayor of Darwin in 1975 (the first woman to be elected Mayor of an Australian capital city) and became the city's first Lord Mayor in 1979. On the back of her public record she was appointed to the National Women's Advisory Council in 1980. In 1982, after completing a Masters in Public Health at the University of Sydney, was appointed to the Northern Territory Department of Health, specialising in Aboriginal health.

Stack had completed internships at Goulburn and in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs before doing a tour as a passenger ship's doctor and then working in general practice in Sydney's western suburbs. She married Tom Lawler, an Agricultural Scientist, in 1957 and they went to live between Wee Waa and Narrabri in the Namoi Valley in New South Wales, as he pioneered the growth of cotton in the district. Stack did not work as a doctor during this period as she was busy raising children. But she did go to Sydney twice to do refresher courses. 'I knew that sooner or later I'd want all those skills and I didn't want to lose them' (Interview).

In 1961, Lawler was appointed to an agriculture science post with the Northern Territory Administration, so Stack and Lawler moved to Darwin with three boys under the age of three. She established herself first as a temporary locum and then in mid 1962, she took over as long-term locum. She was one of two private practitioners in Darwin and estimates that over the next 12 years she delivered more than 2000 babies as a GP obstetrician. At this time she also became a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners by examination. In 1969, she was invited by a local politician, Harry Chan, to run on his team for the Darwin City Council. He wanted a professional woman with a profile to support his candidature. She was duly elected as an alderman, and continued to practise medicine. Combining work, civic and family responsibilities was a challenge, but not one that was overwhelming. She had a 'decent supportive husband' who, after encouraging her to get involved 'wasn't about to let me sink' (Interview).

In 1974 'a complete change of life' took place (Interview). On 24 December 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck northern Australia and Darwin woke to terrible scenes of devastation. Of the city's nine thousand domiciliary units, only 400 remained habitable after the cyclone. Stack was lucky, no one from her family was injured, although they lost the top floor of their house and her surgery was totally destroyed. 'At our place', she says, 'we had one apple between us to eat. We cut it up to share, we put out a dish to catch rainwater to drink, then I went straight to the hospital. I thought I might be needed there' (Out of the ruins).

Arriving at the hospital, she was advised by staff to go straight to Darwin High School where eleven thousand people had been sheltering. On the way, she stopped at pharmacies collecting whatever drugs she could. 'I want all your sedatives', she said, 'there were a lot of nervy people around'. She asked for all their contraceptive pills, too. 'Everybody's contraceptive pills blew away … as a result all the women's periods started too. There was a terrible run on all those sorts of things' (Interview). In the immediate aftermath, Stack built upon her reputation for hard work by remaining cool and responsive in the crisis. Most people were like that, she says. 'People were so pleased to see one another alive. They were so relieved. They just couldn't do enough for one another' (Out of the ruins).

Straight after the cyclone, Stack was one of a group of people who established the Darwin Disaster Welfare Council. People who had never needed help before were unsure where to go to get it, or who to ask so a group of concerned citizens came together. 'There was a bit of an argument about it', she says. 'They pulled together a group to see what were the welfare needs of the people who were still there, and they didn't put any women on it' (Interview). Needless to say, this raised the ire of the women of Darwin. Stack used the only medium of communication available at the time, ABC radio , inviting any interested women to attend a meeting on her front lawn. Most of the large number who attended were older women without young children because the latter group had been evacuated. 'They all came … looking wonderful', Stack said. 'They'd been all running around working like mad and enjoying themselves' (Interview). At this meeting, Stack was elected to the council with the task of representing the views of the women of Darwin. This group became the nucleus of the group that would later become the Northern Territory Women's Advisory Council.

Stack elected to stay on permanently in Darwin after the cyclone and became very involved in the reconstruction of the city. She was elected Mayor 'of a heap of rubble' in May 1975, and automatically became a Member of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission (Jean). She was involved in the development of a new building code for the city to prevent similar devastation in the future and loved living in Darwin through such exciting times. She became the first Lord Mayor of Darwin in 1979 when Queen Elizabeth II created the Lord Mayoralty of the city, the same year she was made Commander of the British Empire for services rendered to the people of Darwin immediately following Cyclone Tracey and during the reconstruction of the city. She was appointed to the National Women's Advisory Council, the key authority set up for advising the Prime Minister on matters of importance to women, in 1980.

On International Women's Day 2011, Stack was honoured by the Northern Territory Government for her instrumental role in the rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy. 'It was like a patient that needed looking after and that's why I did it', she said in an interview thirty-six years after the event (Jean).

Archival Resources

National Archives of Australia

  • NWAC [National Women's Advisory Council] - Appointments, honours and awards, 6 July 1979 - 15 June 1984, 1979/750 7902651; National Archives of Australia. Details

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Eyewitness News. News File Footage. Can 1728, 4 May 1978 - 6 May 1978, 616215; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Ella Stack interviewed Phyllipa Wyatt [sound recording], 26 August 1976, ORAL TRC 459; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
  • Interviews with residents of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, January 1975 [sound recording] / interviewer, Dr. Ella Stack, 1 January 1975 - 15 January 1975, ORAL TRC 456; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Lea, Teresa and the United Nations Association of Australia, Northern Territory Division, Status of Women Committee, Bicentennial N.T. women's project '48-88' : Northern Territory women's register, U.N.A.A. Status of Women Committee (N.T.), Darwin, Northern Territory, 1988. Details
  • Lofthouse, Andrea, Who's Who of Australian Women, Methuen Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982. Details
  • Stack, Dr. Ella, Is there anyone alive in there? : Our cyclone Tracy, Darwin, Christmas 1974, Historical Society of the Northern Territory, Darwin, Northern Territory, 2013. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

Resource Sections

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

NWAC [National Women's Advisory Council] - Appointments, honours and awards
Digitised Paper Resource
6 July 1979 - 15 June 1984
National Archives of Australia
National Archives of Australia