Wood, Ellen

Dr Ellen Maud Wood commenced medical practice in Beecroft in 1909. She arrived with ‘four horses and an up-to-date groom’ [1].

Ellen Maud Wood was the daughter of Joseph Holden Wood of Neutral Bay, an executive with a number of companies including the Hotel Metropole in Sydney and his wife Jane (nee Forbes) [2]. He had been born in Mortram, Cheshire, England and her mother was born in Aberdeen Scotland. Her parents married in Victoria in 1864 [3]. Ellen attended Sydney Girls High School [4] before enrolling in Sydney Medical School in 1891. She failed first year and repeated it in 1892. She entered and completed second year in 1893 and then enrolled in third year in 1894 which again she failed and repeated in 1895 [5].  She did not complete her degree. At this point, her career looks remarkably similar to that of Dagmar Berne who upon being advised by the then Chancellor, Sir Normand MacLaurin, that he would not allow any woman to graduate in medicine, failed to complete her degree and departed for the United Kingdom [6]. Ms Berne obtained an LSA (London) in 1893 together with Diplomas from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Edinburgh, the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow and the Society of Apothecaries, London. Like Ms Berne, after departing Sydney Medical School without a degree Ellen Wood proceeded to the United Kingdom. There she obtained an MLRCP et LRGS from Edinburgh and an LFPS from Glasgow, both in 1897.

Dr Wood worked firstly at the Royal Free Hospital, London and then Coombe Lying In Hospital, Dublin before returning to Australia in 1898.

In a January 1898 interview with Drs Affleck, Berne and Wood the reporter set out how they:

“made their visitor feel at home, and over some tea and fruit salad, which Dr Berne strongly recommended because, as she said, ‘I made it myself you know” …. And [I] could not escape from the thought that the popular notion about women doctors is wrong. They are not, or at least these are not, large angular persons, who appear in man’s attire – wear their hair short, and look at you through gold-rimmed spectacles, but quiet, unassuming, graceful women, full of kindly sympathy for the suffering, especially the ills of women and children” [7].

Instead of a hospital appointment in Sydney, Drs Wood and Biffin took up a hospital appointment in Adelaide in July 1898. At the time no woman was allowed to be appointed to a residency position in New South Wales [8]. Theirs was a joint appointment following the departure of Dr Kinmont. Adelaide Hospital paid Dr Kinmont (a male) £250 per annum but when it jointly appointed by Drs Wood and Biffin [9] to the same single position it paid to each of them £100 per annum [10].

At the conclusion of their 12 month appointment in Adelaide, Drs Wood and Biffin returned to Sydney where they established a medical practice in 197 Elizabeth Street Sydney. They (together with Dr Affleck) again proposed to establish a Hospital for Women – primarily staffed by women [11]. The hospital proposal did not proceed at this time and the Elizabeth Street practice did not succeed, with their fees not even covering the cost of the rent [12].

In 1904 Dr Biffin, with no family money supporting her, established a practice in Lindfield which she successfully conducted for many years.

Dr Wood, living in Balmain at this time, had already been appointed in 1903 as a medical officer for the Balmain United Friendly Society Dispensing Board – which appointment she could have fulfilled while maintaining her practice in the City [13]. She was also appointed as a medical officer to Balmain Hospital in 1904. Her appointment to Balmain Hospital was made notwithstanding the British Medical Association (the forerunner of the Australian Medical Association) threatening to ostracise her if appointed [14]. Then in 1906 the Dispensary Board terminated her appointment. Over 300 letters of protest were received in favour of Dr Wood and Rose Scott, a leading female advocate [15] called a public meeting at the Balmain Town Hall where 70 women came on a wet night together with ten others of the “sterner sex.” Mr Arch Murdoch a member of the Dispensary Board asked why none of this support had been given where it mattered, in presenting as patients of Dr Wood. He said that in “accouchment cases” Dr Kelly (a male) was seeing three times as many patients as Dr Wood [16]. She was not re-appointed by the Dispensary Board. 

In 1908 Dr Wood was in practice in Adelong, where her father also took a role in a local company, before unexpectedly dying [17]. She left Adelong and went to Bega where she sold her practice as the “lady medico” in August 1909 [18].

Dr Ellen Wood commenced practice in Beecroft in 1909. The local paper recorded the commencement of her practice by noting that she came with “four horses and an up to date groom.” [19]. Again, there appears to have been difficulties in gaining acceptance and patients with competing practices of male general practitioners because she left Beecroft in May 1910, with the Cumberland Argus saying that she “has shaken the Beecroft dust from her shoes” [20]. This time she did find a Dr Elsworthy to take over her practice – but he only stayed for 2 months before heading to Mudgee [21].

Her experiences in trying to establish medical practices in Sydney were now put behind her as she attempted to establish her career in country locations. After leaving Beecroft, Dr Wood built her own private hospital in 1910 in Cooroy, Queensland [21]. She stayed there until 1914 when she accepted appointment as government medical officer in Murgon [22]. In 1915 she had a position in Nanango [23]. Then in 1919 she was at Isisford [24]. At some stage she re-located to Bungendore leaving there in 1926. In 1927 she was in the Glen Innes District [25]. In 1930 Dr Wood was in Dora Creek according to the Electoral Roll. She was the South Australian delegate to British Commonwealth League’s seventh annual conference in London in 1931 [26] before being in Rylstone and Dungog in 1932 again according to the Electoral Roll [27]. Then in 1934 she was in Hay [28] before being appointed as medical officer at Canungra District Hospital in October 1934 – where she died the following year of pneumonia [29].

While some of these appointments may have been locum tenens this would only have been a minority as most moves require a sale of the medical practice. When Dr Wood died, the Brisbane Courier Mail rightly said that ‘she acquired and disposed of many practices in NSW and Queensland pioneering in some rough places in the latter State and showing herself equal to all emergencies [30].”

Apart from what appears to be a peripatetic medical career her early photograph shows her to be an Edwardian lady wearing pince nez. She was the daughter of a senior corporate executive. One of her brothers was a senior Executive at International Harvester, a major international company, and so she came from an upper middle class background. Dr Wood was a woman of faith, attending the local Presbyterian Church [31] (with her father being active in the Presbyterian Church wherever he lived and one of her brothers a Minister of Religion [32]) and, like so many of her contemporary female colleagues (such as Doctors Dagmar Berne, Harriett Biffin, Iza Coghlan, Lucy Gullett) she remained unmarried. Unlike her fellow women doctors her proclivity to move after a short period of time is marked.

But we leave the final comment to, once again, the Brisbane Courier when it truly said that she “had to struggle against prejudice and the ‘preconceived idea’ that women could not measure up to the masculine standard of proficiency in the noble cause of medicine” [33].

[1]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 2 October 1909

[2]      Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 1927, 16 August 1939

[3]      Adelong & Tumut Express, 25 December 1908 p.3

[4]      Brisbane Courier Mail 21 February 1935; Australian Town and Country Journal 25 February 1903

[5]      Calendars of the University of Sydney 1891-1896

[6]      M Hutton Neve This Mad Folly (Sydney, 1980) p 66

[7]      Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1898 p.11.

[8]      Chronicle (SA) 25 June 1898 p17. Sydney refused residencies to women doctors at this time: M Hutton Neve This Mad Folly (Sydney, 1980) p140. She had been registered as a medical practitioner in NSW in January 1898: Government Gazette, January 1898 p. 420.

[9]      Harriet Eliza Biffin (1867-1939) was enrolled in Sydney Medical School 1893-1897 and graduated in 1898 having repeated her fourth year five times. Dr Biffin went on to be an early supporter of the Rachel Foster Hospital for Women in 1922 and an honorary physician at Mater Misercordiae Hospital (North Sydney)

[10]    Australian Town and Country Journal, 2 July 1898 p18; Brisbane Courier Mail, 23 June 1898 p5

[11]    Brisbane Courier Mail, 5 January 1898

[12]    Courier Mail, 21 February 1935 p. 20. The Medical Registration Board had them separately registered at the Elizabeth Street address from 1900 to 1907.

[13]    Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 1903

[14]    Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1904 p.8.

[15]    J Allen “Rose Scott” Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988) p. 547. The letters of protest were not even going to be read by the Dispensary Board at first: Balmain Observer, 24 March 1906 p. 6.

[16]    Balmain Observer, 31 March 1906 p.4.

[17]    Adelong & Tumut Express, 25 September 1908 p. 2; The Tumut Advocate, 22 December 1908 p.3. This is contrary to what is said in M Hutton Neve This Mad Folly (Sydney, 1980) p. 160 which states that she remained in Balmain.

[18]    Twofold Bay Magnet, 2 August 1909 p.8; South Coast Times, 28 August 1909 p.4.

[19]    Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 18 September 1909

[20]    Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 14 May 1910 p 8

[21]    Mudgee Guardian, 9 June 1910 p. 20.

[22]    Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, 15 October 1910, 25 February 1911 p.1.

[23]    Morning Bulletin, 17 January 1914 p 7; Queensland Times, 16 January 1915 p.4.

[24]    Brisbane Courier, 31 March 1915 p6

[25]    Western Champion, 6 September 1919 p. 5

[26]    Glen Innes Examiner, 5 May 1927 p.2, 11 August 1927 p.2, 23 April 1927 p.1, 8 December 1927 p. 2, 9 February 1928 p.2.

[27]    Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1931 p4

[28]    Dungog Chronicle, 23 December 1932 p.2.

[29]    North Western Courier, 7 March 1935 p.4; Courier Mail, 21 February 1935 p.20.

[30]    Brisbane Courier Mail, 21 February 1935

[31]    21 February 1935 p. 20.

[32]    Queanbeyan-Canberra Advocate, 2 December 1926 p3

[33]    Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 1939 p14; Adelong & Tumut Express, 25 December 1908 p.3.

[34]    Courier Mail, 21 February 1935 p. 20.