Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dr Lilian Cooper

(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #185958)

Queensland's first female doctor, Lilian Cooper (pictured above), experienced a lifetime of discrimination and seemingly rose above all of it. Born in Kent in England, Cooper was determined from a very early age to make medicine her career. After overcoming parental disapproval, she studied in London and Edinburgh and became a doctor, and then decided to come to Australia in 1891 at the age of thirty. As Queensland's first woman doctor, Lilian Cooper was initially contracted as an assistant to another doctor, but this became problematic for her because he was an alcoholic. She managed to have that contract cancelled, but her biography records that she was boycotted by the medical fraternity for two years as a result. She then set up her own rooms at The Mansions in George St, and was able to build a successful practice, making house calls by horse-drawn sulky or bicycle. The picture below, from around the year 1900, shows Dr Cooper (right), about to set off from her rooms at The Mansions. Her driver is Miss Josephine Bedford. (Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; # 7953_0001)

As if overcoming the prejudice against female professionals that was commonplace at the time (even more commonplace than now!) were not obstacle enough, Cooper had to battle more than the gender issue.
Dr Cooper was, in all probability, a lesbian. The state government's web page about Cooper is headed "Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford: Lifelong companions who travelled against the tide". Cooper had met Josephine Bedford in England while studying medicine, and the two emigrated to Australia together and remained together for the rest of their lives. The social mores of the time didn't include the term lesbian, hence the euphemisms "lifelong companion" and "lifetime friend" which abound in any writings about the two women. Can you imagine how, in the late nineteenth century in Brisbane, the only female doctor in the place (not to mention one who was unmarried and lived with a female "companion") would have been viewed by the citizens? I can't, I really can't - although perhaps that is because I'm looking back with today's almost overwhelming fixation on sex and sexuality. Maybe more practical human traits such as eking out a living were more important then.

Dr Cooper became one of the first women in Queensland to drive a motor car, and she was capable of performing her own repairs. In fact, she was one of the eighteen original founders of the RACQ, the state's motoring body. Described as "
A tall, angular, brusque, energetic woman, prone to bad language", she was "often heard cursing and swearing at an obstinate engine". Obviously a no-nonsense, practical person. When WWI broke out, Cooper and Bedford travelled to Europe to serve in Serbia - Cooper as a surgeon and Bedford as head of the ambulance service. Other Australian female doctors and nurses also went, as reported in Art and Architecture, mainly. Dr Cooper was awarded a Serbian honour as a result of her war-time service in that country. The women returned to Brisbane after the war, and Dr Cooper resumed her medical career. She was involved in the health issues of children and women in particular. For her part, Josephine Bedford helped establish both the Creche and Kindergarten Association and the Playground Association in Queensland.

It is reported on the blog-page Lesbians in 1900 Brisbane that, following the death of Dr Cooper, Josephine Bedford offered their Kangaroo Point home to the Anglican Church next door,
St Mary's. Apparently the offer was refused. Bedford then offered the property to the Sisters of Charity, a Catholic order, who accepted the donation, which was to be used to care for the sick and dying. This property was the forerunner of the well-known Mount Olivet hospice, now St Vincent's. The blog Jottings postulates that the stained-glass windows that were donated to St Mary's Anglican by Bedford in memory of Cooper may contain homosexual symbolism.

The final, moving piece to this story is the grave-site of the two women, who are buried together in Toowong Cemetery; on the top, Dr Cooper's headstone, and underneath it that of Josephine Bedford, with the inscriptions "God is Love" and "They are thine, O Lord, Thou lover of souls" - Wisdom 11.26. Click to see a larger image.
(Photo: © 2010 the foto fanatic)

Visitors to the grave are leaving pebbles on the headstones and beads on the cross above them, presumably as a mark of respect to the women.(Photo: © 2010 the foto fanatic)

Dr Lilian Cooper died on 18 August 1947, sixty-three years ago this day. Josephine Bedford died on 22 December 1955. Someone should make a movie about these two exceptional women.

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Next: Spire on the hill


  1. Super! We don't have huge numbers of early female role models in this country, at least before the suffragettes. And those women we do have were largely rural or religious.

    When Dr Lilian Cooper arrived in 1891, I wonder if she was given the same hospital privileges as other (male) doctors.

  2. There was fierce opposition to her from the other (male) doctors of the time. After seeking cancellation of her contract she was boycotted by them - no-one would provide anaesthetics for her surgery lists or even see patients she referred to them.
    That she prevailed is testament to her professionalism. She now has a medical centre and a ward in a nursing home named after her.

  3. I have been enjoying reading your blog for a while now and thought I'd leave a comment today. Thank you for this very interesting posting!

  4. This post was absolutely fascinating. I want to know more about those two women. Such interesting individuals.

  5. Watch out for a series of epsiodes on the internet coming in May 2011...its a musical about Lilian..should be great..."Lilian Violet" Suzanne Dorfields article inthe Courier Mail on or about 6 January 2011



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