Woman Wheaton, Amy Grace


Social work educator and Teacher

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Amy Grace Wheaton (nee Priest) was born in Gawler, South Australia in 1898. After completing her high school teacher training, she studied part-time to attain both BA and MA degrees at the University of Adelaide; her Masters thesis was on banking and finance. After marrying Ralph Wheaton in 1925, she spent the seven years travelling in Europe, undertaking post-graduate studies in social sciences at the London School of Economics. She returned to Australia in 1931 (Australian Women's Weekly, 28 July 1934) but made a second trip to Europe in 1935 attending conferences of Open Door International (Advertiser, 25 September 1935), the International Suffrage Association (Advertiser, 12 June 1935) and the Social Hygiene movement (Advertiser, 10 September 1935) as an Australian delegate.

A strong feminist, Wheaton became the first Director of the South Australian Board of Social Studies, established in 1935 as the Board of Social Service Study and Training. Her acceptance of the position was made possible by the willingness of her husband to curtail his banking career and relocate, with their two young sons, from Melbourne to Adelaide (Martin, 14). The new role involved not only undertaking the bulk of the teaching in the course, but also speaking and lobbying in order to persuade organisations of the need to employ professional staff. Wheaton was progressive in advocating equal rights for Aborigines and lecturing on social hygiene. Appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) in 1939, she was to direct the professional education for social workers in Adelaide, for 23 years. In 1942, the year after the birth of her third son, she was instrumental in the acceptance and the ongoing development of the Diploma of Social Science at the University of Adelaide, where she lectured until 1957.

Wheaton was president of the Social Worker's Association of South Australia, and from 1946 vice-president of the Australian Association of Social Workers. In the same year she was co-founder and vice-president of the South Australian Council of Social Service. In 1950 she took leave to accept a commission from the Commonwealth Government to survey and report on problems of resettlement of displaced persons in the British and American zones of Germany in relation to Australian immigration (Bates, 1988). From 1951-1954 she was also president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters. In this role she campaigned for women to have 'representation at every level of government' arguing that 'equal responsibility is more important than equal pay' (West Australian, 22 October 1951).

On her return to the university she proposed an expansion of the two year diploma into a four year degree course. After lengthy delays the University Council opted for a three year diploma. In 1955 the university refused her leave to take up a Fulbright Fellowship, however, in 1957, she was permitted to travel to America, where she was recognised for her leadership by the Welfare Secretariat of the United Nations (Bates, 1988). In the years 1958 -1962 she was Professor and Social Welfare Training Adviser to Pakistan, developing that country's post-graduate training for social work (Bates, 1988).

Returning to Adelaide she continued to lecture in sociology and on the social aspects of town planning. She believed that education for social work should be sufficiently broad for graduates to be able to understand the social problems of individuals, groups and communities (Bates, 1988). Throughout her life she maintained her view that the discipline of education should take pre-eminence, and that the creative spirit of man could find the will and the means to improve the quality of life which she saw as the goal of the profession. The Amy Wheaton Building at the Magill campus of the University of South Australia was named in her memory. She died in 1988.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Bates, Nancy P., 'Obituary, Amy Grace Wheaton, MA, BSc Econ', Australian Social Work, vol. 41, no. 3, September 1988, pp. 36-37. Details
  • Martin, Elaine, 'The Importance of the Trained Approach: Social Work Education in South Australia, 1935-1946', Australian Social Work, vol. 36, no. 1, 1983, pp. 11-22. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources