Constance D'Arcy

Constance Elizabeth D'Arcy (1879-1950), obstetrician and gynaecologist, was born on 1 June 1879 at Rylestone, New South Wales, fifth daughter of Bridget (born Synnott) and Murty D'Arcy, sergeant of police. She passed the senior public examination in 1894 from Rylstone Public School and, after attending Riviere College, Woollahra, in 1898 matriculated at the University of Sydney, graduating MB ChM in 1904. As neither of the Sydney teaching hospitals would accept a woman, she did her residency at the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital. In 1905 she became resident medical officer at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington. An early experience testifying to a coronial inquiry into a death from septicaemia following induced abortion may explain a lifelong commitment to lowering the maternal mortality rate.

Dr D'arcy had an outstanding career as a distinguished gynaecologist and obstetrician, as a leader of the Catholic laity and a wide-ranging involvement in secular women's organisations. She practised in Macquarie St and as honorary surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Women and later also at Rachel Forster Hospital. She was an executive member of the Australian Trained Nurses' Association, a founder of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation, a foundation member of the College of Surgeons of Australasia (Royal Australasian College of Surgeons) and a member of the Catholic Medical Guild of St Luke. She helped re-form the Medical Women's Society of New South Wales, becoming president (1933- 34). She publicised the value of ante natal care, supported the registration of nurses, and called for improved procedures against puerperal infection. She was appointed DBE in 1935.

As a young graduate she was active in the Sydney University Women's Union and the Catholic University Women Graduates' Association. From 1919-49 she was an elected member of the Senate of the University of Sydney (the first woman to be an elected member of Senate). She was also active in the New South Wales National Council of Women and on Senate guided through the proposal from the Council for extended training in obstetrics. She was a lecturer in clinical obstetrics at the university from 1925-39. When the Catholic bishop appealed to women to raise money for a Catholic Women's College, to protect their 'piety and virtue' in the secular university environment, D'Arcy joined the committee but pointedly stressed the benefits of women participating fully in university life. She supported the separation of Sancta Sophia Hall from the men's College and was a long-serving member of its council when a College (1929), and council president (1946). She was honoured by the Pope in 1940 with the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

In 1922-23 in the National Council of Women, D'Arcy opposed the move to abolish the maternity bonus to divert the money to hospitals. She defended home birth and a woman's right to choose where to give birth; she was critical of 'meddlesome midwifery' - too many vaginal examinations during labour, undue haste and resort to forceps, all adding to the risk of infection. She served on the National Council's health and sex education committees. When invited in 1936 to deliver the Anne MacKenzie oration to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra, she made maternal mortality her subject.

Aware of discriminatory practices and concerned about conditions of employment for women, Constance was a long-serving president of the Professional Women Workers' Association. She moved unsuccessfully for the appointment of a women to the University's Appointment Board in 1935 and she supported the movement for equal pay. In 1944 she became president of a re-formed Business and Professional Women's Club which was committed to securing equal pay. She joined her friend Jessie Street in organising the Australian Women's Charter, though she was persuaded to withdraw when the Charter came under conservative and Catholic criticism.

D'Arcy was deputy chancellor at the University of Sydney from 1943-46 and in 1946, in the interregnum before a new vice-chancellor was appointed, was more closely involved in the day-to-day running of the university than was customary for a deputy chancellor; she had a major role in overseeing an important period of university growth.

A large woman who was chauffeur-driven on her rounds, she had a hearty infectious laugh, a gracious manner and a passion for collecting antiques. For many years two unmarried sisters kept house for her. She died on 25 April 1950.

Heather Radi