Woman Murdoch, Elisabeth



Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Elisabeth Murdoch was born in Melbourne in 1909, the third daughter of merchant, Rupert Greene and his wife, Marie. After completing her private school education she married newspaper proprietor Keith Murdoch in 1928. The couple had three daughters and a son, the international media proprietor, Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch entered early into a career in philanthropy, volunteering in her youth for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her marriage gave her entree to Melbourne's charitable elite resulting in invitations to join the committees of the Royal Children's Hospital and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Her association with Lady Ella Latham, and the other members of these committees she credits with providing 'a wonderful education for ... a young woman' (Monk, 126-7). From the beginning her interest was in the day-to-day work of these organisations. Although she tolerated the socialising which committee membership involved, 'direct giving', she argued, 'would ease the burden of committees and leave them freer to do necessary work' (Courier-Mail, 5 August 1939).

Following her husband's death in 1952, she used her substantial inheritance to become a major donor to charitable, education, research and cultural organisations, ranging from the very local to the national. Assuming the presidency at the Royal Children's Hospital in 1954, she oversaw its relocation to the Royal Park site, introducing innovative fund-raising methods to bring the project to fruition. She became well known to Victorians as the public face of the annual Good Friday appeal, initially on radio and, from 1957, using the new medium of television (Age, 3 January 1963). She was also influential in the establishment of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute at the hospital.

Although she declares that she has never been a feminist, Murdoch believes that 'it's nice to show that women can be useful' (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 2009). Her career is marked by many firsts including, in 1968, her appointment as the first female trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria. To Dame Elisabeth, philanthropy brings its own reward through the enrichment of being involved with others (Cham, 2). 'The advantage of wealth', she observed, 'is that you have an opportunity to do so much good' (Enough Rope). Although initially much of her giving was anonymous, in later life she decided 'it should be known because by example it encourages other people' (Enough Rope). In the tradition of nineteenth-century philanthropy, she contributes her time as well as her money, and takes an active interest in most of the organisations to which she is a regular donor. In her tribute to Murdoch, Sue Walker, director of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, observed: 'there are those in the community with vision and drive, and there are others who support through philanthropy and benefaction, but it is a very rare phenomenon to find both attributes in one person' (Walker, 10). 'If you've got money', Murdoch explained, 'it's perfectly easy to give it away and nothing to be particularly proud of but it's being involved and knowing what you are helping' that she values (Enough Rope).

Murdoch was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1963, a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989, and on her 103rd birthday declared a freewoman of the city of Melbourne. Many of the organisations to which she has been a substantial donor have also named buildings or awards in her honour.

Published Resources


  • Monks, John, Elisabeth Murdoch: Two Lives, Macmillan, Macmillan, Chippendale, New South Wales, 1994. Details

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