Woman Chamberlain, Edna

Academic, Professor and Social work educator

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Edna R. Chamberlain (nee Green), was born in 1921 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, the second of three children. Her father Arthur was a fitter and turner. A child during the Depression years, she grew up conscious of the struggles of the poor and gained a strong sense of social justice (Green, p. 4). Her parents could not afford university fees - she worked for six years for the Department of Agriculture from the age of 15, matriculating and studying at night for a commerce degree at the University of Queensland. In 1943 she obtained a scholarship to Melbourne University to study the new diploma of Social Work, which she completed in 1945. At this time social work was beginning to be redefined through critical analysis of social inequality. 'Early in her career, Edna Chamberlain formed a view which encompassed a concern for individuals in need, while addressing the social, economic and cultural context in which those needs arose' (Green, p. 3).

Chamberlain was awarded a Red Cross scholarship to study medical social work. Offered a position as Director of Red Cross Social Services in Hobart, she moved to Tasmania for eight years, where she worked rehabilitating returned soldiers and in medical social work. Marrying Lyle Chamberlain in 1949, they adopted a daughter. She established the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers, of which she was the inaugural president, and the Tasmanian Marriage Guidance Council (Green, p. 5). After her husband died suddenly she returned to Brisbane and obtained a research position with Professor Fred Schonell. She also lectured part-time for the new Department of Social Work that began in 1956 (p. 6). Wishing to broaden her experience she moved to Chicago and completed a masters degree at the University's School of Social Service Administration in 1963.

On her return she was appointed to a lectureship in Education at the University of Queensland. Four years later she transferred to the Department of Social Work under its founder Hazel Smith. Chamberlain succeeded Smith in 1973 and was made a professor the following year, the first woman social work professor in Australia (Green, p. 7). Under her leadership the School of Social Work became a Faculty, and she implemented a shift from the focus on casework to considering the wider political, economic and social environments to empower individuals (Cooper, 2009), establishing the Graduate Diploma in Social Welfare. She faced hostility from male colleagues who were unused to her rational leadership style of seeking consensus in meetings (Green, p. 7).

The Whitlam federal government encouraged academics to inform social policy in Australia. Chamberlain worked in the Social Welfare Commission which introduced the notion of community planning in such areas as childcare, supporting parents' benefits, family services, aged care, and the Australian Assistance Plan. From 1970-1972 she was president of the Australian Association of Social workers. At the University of Queensland she was Dean of the Faculty of Social Work from 1975-1976 and 1983-1986. In 1977-1978 she was vice president of the Association of Schools of Social Work in Australia. From 1975-1984 she was a member of the Social Work Panel of the Labour and Immigration Department and a member of the Queensland Board of Advanced Education. In 1978 she joined the Commonwealth Legal Aid Commission. She produced four important research studies on the social and economic problems of urban Aboriginal people; the social and psychological effects of Cyclone Tracy and the Brisbane floods; and the introduction of social work to legal aid. (Cooper, 2009).

Focusing on the international social work scene in the 1980s, she was president of the Asian-Pacific Association of Social Work Education from 1985-1989 and a member of the International Association of Schools of Social Work 1984-1988. She retired in 1986 as Emeritus Professor and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1988 (Green, p. 3). In 1995 Queensland University conferred on her an honorary Doctorate of Philosophy. The School of Social Work and Applied Human Sciences' building at the University's St Lucia campus is named in her honour.

Chamberlain was described by Professor Lesley Cooper as 'an outstanding leader in Australian social work. She contributed extensively to social work education at the University of Queensland, the social work profession through her leadership of the Australian Association of Social Workers and to the community through advocacy for progressive social policies.' She succeeded in a profession where men were promoted over women and was a strong role model for women pursuing careers. Chamberlain died in 2005.

Archival Resources

University of Queensland Library

  • Edna Chamberlain Papers, 1931 - 1994, UQFL311; University of Queensland Library. Details

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Green, Stephanie, 'Edna Chamberlain: In Retrospect', Australian Social Work, vol. 47, no. 3, 1994, pp. 3-11. Details

Resource Sections

Online Resources

See also