Mary Clementina de Garis – Medical Trailblazer
After two years’ active service in Europe, Mary de Garis returned to Australia, ready to start the next chapter of her life. She decided to try her luck in Geelong, then a small regional city with a population of around 40,000 people. Here she was the city’s first, and for more than 20 years, only female doctor.
She opened a practice in LaTrobe Terrace, and consulted here for 3 hours each day. The rest of her time was spent driving around Geelong in her new motorcar, visiting maternity patients and delivering their babies in the small private maternity hospitals dotted around the city. Mary was very popular with female patients who had not before had the opportunity to be treated by a woman doctor. She inspired trust around the often dangerous experience of childbirth, and it was in the field of obstetrics that she made her most outstanding post-war contribution; as a clinician, a researcher, and as a campaigner for the provision of maternity services at the Geelong Hospital.
Mary’s arrival in Geelong coincided with a local push to re-build the outdated Geelong Hospital. Mary proposed a pavilion model, with separate verandahed buildings designed to reduce cross-infections. She also advocated the inclusion of a maternity ward. While the pavilion design was adopted and built, the hospital committee was less enthusiastic about the idea of a maternity ward. It took seven years of determined campaigning by Mary before a maternity ward was eventually opened in 1931. The new maternity ward, together with the antenatal and postnatal clinics established by Mary at the hospital, gave poorer women access to high standard, evidence-based maternity care. Mary was appointed Medical Officer to the Maternity Ward from 1931 – 1941 and Honorary Consultant to the Maternity Ward until 1959. Mary also turned her attention to hospital governance, campaigning successfully for female representation on the Hospital General Committee.
In an era when infant and maternal mortality rates were high, Mary’s skill and mother-focussed approach to antenatal care and childbirth achieved outstanding results. She conducted extensive research to improve mortality rates, examining factors such as uterine inertia, hidden sources of infection such as bad teeth, the effects of diet on pregnancy, toxaemia and other complications. She also researched the causes of pain in labour, publishing three books and over 40 papers in British and Australian medical journals. Her most significant publication was The Theory of Obstetrics (1931). In 1938 she was recognised by hospital management for achieving the delivery of 1000 babies without a single maternal death – all without the assistance of blood transfusions or antibiotics. Mary notified the British Medical Journal of her results but her figures were not published, as the editor did not believe that such an outstanding record could be true.
Mary was also concerned for the welfare of older children. She was honorary medical officer for the Free Kindergarten Movement of Victoria until 1948, carrying out health checks at Geelong kindergartens and primary schools. She was also closely involved with the work of the Bethany Babies’ Home, which looked after single mothers and their babies, as well as neglected children. In 1948 she was made a Life Governor of the Home.
Like male doctors of the time, Mary practiced well into her seventies. Her work at the Geelong Hospital was commemorated with the naming of De Garis House in 1954. However, the most heartfelt tribute came from one of her patients: “She had a mother’s natural instincts herself but the whole world was her family.”
Source: Ruth L.Lee, Woman War Doctor: The life of Mary de Garis, Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd, 2014.