Woman Roberts, Shirley Dallas (1927 - 2011)

East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Medical practitioner, Radiologist and Writer
Alternative Names
  • Nelson , Shirley
  • Roberts-Nelson, Shirley Dallas

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Shirley Roberts was born in East Melbourne in 1927. She was an only child, and her father died when she was seven. She was educated at Yarra Park Primary school and Presbyterian Ladies' College (Melbourne), followed by the University of Melbourne, where she gained a residential scholarship at Janet Clarke Hall. After graduating in medicine (MBBS) in 1950, she undertook a residency and initial training in radiology at St Vincent's Hospital, East Melbourne, before transferring to the Alfred Hospital in Prahran. Once qualified as a radiologist, she spent some time in the United Kingdom, where she passed the examinations to be awarded the prestigious FFR (Fellowship of the Faculty of Radiology) in 1957.

On her return to Australia in 1958, Roberts became deputy director of radiology at the Alfred Hospital before moving in 1962 to become director of radiology at Prince Henry's Hospital in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. As a woman, impeccably qualified and greatly skilled, her appointment at the young age of thirty-five was a newsworthy event, noted in a lengthy article in the Melbourne Age. In the same article, Roberts expressed her appreciation of radiology as 'a speciality that doesn't cause you to lose contact with any branch of medicine', continuing, 'as a radiologist you still feel well in the field' (The Age).

During the twenty-five years of her directorship at Prince Henry's, she oversaw a massive expansion of the hospital's x-ray facilities and buttressed its affiliation with Monash University. She was a hands-on director, with impressive technical skills and medical knowledge, and also appreciated as an excellent teacher. Throughout her working life she was a determined supporter of women's rights, particularly in the medical field, which she advanced through her own example, in teaching and mentoring young women medical students and through her writing. When it became clear that Prince Henry's was to close in the late 1980s, she retired from her position and from practising radiology. Instead, she devoted herself to writing and to enjoying family life with her husband, Ken Nelson, whom she had married in 1975.

Her publications in this final period of her life amount to a second career. She focused her interest in historical research and medicine on biography. Her first book, Sir Charles Hotham: A Biography (MUP, 1985), examined the life of the gold-rush era Governor of Victorian, but her subsequent books focused on a variety of medical pioneers. These included Sir James Paget: The rise of clinical surgery (Royal Society of Medicine Press, 1989), Sophia Jex-Blake: a woman pioneer in nineteenth century medical reform (Routledge 1993) and James Parkinson: From apothecary to general practitioner (Royal Society of Medicine Press, 1999). She also contributed to the Journal of Medical Biography between 1995 and 2003.

Roberts' health deteriorated after Alzheimer's set in when she was in her early seventies. She died in 2011.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Harold Fabrikant, 'Obituary: Shirley Dallas Roberts-Nelson (11 August 1927 - 20 July 2011)', Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Oncology, no. 56, 2012, pp. 123 - 124. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • 'With X-ray Film: Radiology chief is a woman', The Age, 12 January 1963, p. 8. Details

See also