Woman Davidson, Mary Eileen

Social worker

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Mary Eileen Davidson, Member of the Order (AM) was born in 1909 in Perth, the eldest of six children of Robert Alexander, a retail manager, and Mary Davidson (nee McBreen). After completing her secondary education at the Sacred Heart School, Perth, she went on to the University of Western Australia where she graduated in arts in 1931. Following in the steps of Norma Parker and Constance Moffit, she became the third Australian to gain a scholarship to study at the National Catholic University of America. Graduating in 1935 with a Master of Arts and a Diploma of Social Services, she worked in children's aid, adoption and psychiatric services in Baltimore, Washington and New York before moving to England in 1936 to train in medical social work at St Thomas's Hospital.

Following her graduation from St Thomas's Davidson she was invited by the nuns at Sydney's Lewisham Hospital to establish an Almoner Department. She also worked with Parker and Moffit to establish the Catholic Trained Social Workers' Association in Sydney, which in turn led to the founding of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in 1941 (Gleeson, 2008). Like other social workers of her generation Davidson became involved in the war effort, moving to South Australia to become deputy director of rehabilitation for the Red Cross in 1942 (Gleeson, 2007). From 1945-1948 she was involved in the United Nations child search operation and the International Refugee Organisation. Based in Munich, Davidson worked to reunite children in occupied territories who had been forcibly removed from their families and placed with German families with their parents. After her return to Australia, she raised £70,000 for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund by speaking about these experiences (Sankey, 2007).

Davidson pioneered Australian social workers' commitment to international practice and education. In the early 1950s she worked in Thailand for four years at the Maternal and Child Health Training and Demonstration project for the United Nations' Children's Emergency Fund. She helped establish social work training in Thailand and, with Parker's encouragement, developed a social work course for international students at Sydney University (Gleeson, 2006, 197-198 ).

In the 1950s she was appointed foundation executive secretary of the Australian Council of Social Welfare, and later the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) where she played a 'a calm, but pivotal role, in helping to ease tensions between Catholic and Protestant interests' (Gleeson, 2007). On her return to Perth in 1969, she worked with Moffit to establish the Catholic church's diocesan welfare agency Centrecare (Gleeson, 2007). Her determination and leadership inspired others. When officialdom was too slow, she would begin the work, making herself indispensable. She was the inaugural secretary of the New South Wales Association for Mental Health; she worked to establish the Good Neighbourhood Council, as well as teaching and researching at St Vincent's and Royal Prince Alfred hospitals, Sydney (Sankey, 2007). Reflecting on her career she commented on the importance of mentors: 'it was exciting and challenging and we worked with a will, determined to fulfil the wonderful faith and pride that Miss Agnes Regan and her staff in Washington had in us' (Gleeson, 2007). Davidson was awarded a papal cross in 1992 and the AM in 2001. She died in Perth in 2007.

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