Tuesday, March 3, 2015

General Practice Past: Dr Ettie Lyons

If any of you follow my Facebook or twitter feeds you will know me to be a proud (and recently vocal) General Practitioner.  You will also know that in the last little while my specialty has taken a political beating and I am not the only GP feeling more than a little devalued and questioning my choice of career.

I had been planning and researching this particular series for a while - delayed as always due to a busy life.  I'm bringing it forward for my own purpose - to find inspiration in the amazing doctors who went before me in this remarkable specialty of mine. 

We will start with Dr. Ettie Lyons.

(Bachelor of Arts Graduation photo - Dr. Lyons is in the middle)

Ettie Lyons attained a Bachelor of Arts in 1903 and a Bachelor of Medicine in 1908, both from the University of Sydney.  She was then Superintendent of the Sydney Medical Mission from 1910-1917.  This was a free medical service staffed only by women doctors which provided medical care to the poor of the inner city.  A report in 1912 stated she made 3073 home visits that year and saw another 7108 people at the dispensery.  During this period Dr. Lyons met her life partner - nurse and pharmacist Rebe Wright - known as 'Wrighty'.

(During her time in the medical mission- undated)

In 1917 Dr. Lyons resigned from her position at the medical mission and set up a general practice in Taralga.  In doing so she became the first female doctor in the southern tablelands. 

Five years later in 1922 Dr. Lyons and Wrighty decided to take an 18 month long return to the UK, partly to allow Dr. Lyons to refresh her skills.  Taralga held a send off where pretty much the entire community attended and professed their love for their doctor and entreated her to return soon. 

Her locum during her time away was Dr. Kathleen Clouston - Dr. Lyons preferentially choosing women doctors as her locums.

(Dr. Kathleen Clouston)

On her return Dr. Lyons came back to Taralga and stayed another 32 years, joined by Dr. Muriel McPhillips in thee late 1930s.

Her impact on the Taralga community is such that she is still well remembered fondly today - particularly her "forthright" attitude.  Her practice at the time was described as a "microcosm of general practice in rural NSW in the first half of the 20th century," by Dr. Beatrix Durie in an article in the MJA in 1972.

I suppose compared to other figures I usually write about Ettie Lyons isn't particularly exciting.  She moved to a small country town, she worked.  She retired.  But to the people of Taralga - Dr. Lyons was exactly what they needed - someone to look after their children, their parents, deliver their babies, listen and care.  A good GP.

Maybe not that interesting, but very, very important. 



For this article I am deeply indebted to Mr. Peter McInnes who surprised the heck out of me by providing links to the wonderful story about Dr. Lyons send off party and all of the marvellous pictures you see on this post when I was first researching.  Thank you Peter - you made my day when you first posted - and you continue to every time I see them!


  1. Before Dr Lyons became a country Doctor she worked for 7 years in the Sydney inner city slums and wrote on housing as a key social determinants of health as a young fresh faced GP. So she was both an experienced in big city and rural doctor. She co-wrote the Housing chapter in this pamphlet - Some facts concerning social conditions in Australia, Supplement to Malcolm Spencer’s Social Degradation, dated December 1911, Student Christian Movement, Melbourne. This would have been the results of many house calls she made in the slums in Newton, Alexandria, Waterloo, Redfern Chippendale etc during her first year practicing in Australia.

    1. Love it Peter. Clever, clever lady!

    2. Thanks so much for sharing this info about Ettie Lyons, Peter McInnes and crazedturkeydrgillian - your gatherings of information about her came up quickly when I started asking uncle google about the history of the town and its people...

      I'm really keen now to also find out who she may have crossed professional paths with in Sydney a hundred years ago, and I'd be most grateful for any further leads or suggestions on what I should read or who I should contact, if you have an idea.... I just want to pull more threads together about medical education and practice in Sydney then ;)

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I have a long word document which basically lists some of the material you have found plus tries to chronologically track her movements both locally and internationally. I also have an interview with an old Taralga resident (unfortunately not yet transcribed) about Dr Ettie and Wighty). I also have a public Trove list under her name which I intermittently update when I find new articles. A classic connection is with Dr Evelyn Dickinson, who graduated from Sydney in 1908 with Ettie.

  3. Evelyn was a published author and brilliant mature age medical student. She never practised in Australia but wrote a novel about medical practice in England which was well reviewed by the medical press. The novel itself sunk like a stone published as it was in 1914 just before the war. As far as I am aware only one copy of this novel is available world wide - Mitchell Library in Sydney. Not easy for the busy person to get access to!

  4. Here is a photo.

  5. Spot on with this article, I really think this website needs more attention. I'll probably be back to read more, thanks for the info.
    Dentist in Waterloo, ON

  6. My Aunt Ettie was wonderful, I travelled as a teenager from Ashfield to Mona Vale by bus and train and she coached me in French, many times she lapsed into Latin. She was a sharp, smart lady with her pet Alsatian, Honey who scared anyone who saw her for the first time. She was one of a king. Graham Jones

    1. This is so lovely. Thanks for the info Graham,


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