Elsie Dalyell

Elsie Jean Dalyell (1881-1948), pathologist, was born on 13 December 1881 at Newtown, Sydney, second daughter of Jean (born McGregor) and James Melville Dalyell, mining engineer. Educated at Sydney Girls' High School, she joined the Department of Public Instruction as a pupil-teacher in 1897. Sponsored by the department she completed first year arts and science at the University of Sydney. After suffering a hysterectomy in 1905, she resigned as a teacher and transferred to second-year medicine, graduating MB with first-class honours (1909) and ChM (1910). She was appointed medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1911-12 Elsie Dalyell was the first woman on the full-time medical school staff as demonstrator in pathology, and in 1912 the first woman elected to a Beit fellowship, which she took up at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London.

In the war she joined Lady Wimborne's Serbian Relief Fund unit which went to Skopje (Uskub) to help with the typhus epidemic in 1915. Rather to her annoyance, she was safe at the Addington Park war hospital, Croydon, when Skopje was overrun by the Bulgarians. In 1916 she joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service unit at Royaumont, France, and afterwards enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Malta and Salonika, Greece. Early in 1919 she went to Constantinople to deal with cholera, and in June was appointed OBE; she had been twice mentioned in despatches.

In 1919-20 she worked in Vienna as senior clinician to a research team lead by Dr (Dame) Harriette Chick, studying deficiency disease in children. As part of a re-education program, Drs Chick and Dalyell presented and published scientific papers in German soon after their arrival. In 1923 the team produced perhaps 'the most complete study' of human rickets prophylaxis ever undertaken.

For family reasons, and in the belief that she had a duty to give Australia the benefit of her experience, she returned in March 1923, travelling via the United States for a lecture tour on the Vienna research. The British regretted their loss and the Americans tried to detain her. Ironically, there was no suitable professional opportunity in Sydney. Without capital, her attempt at private practice in Macquarie St failed. In 1924 she began duty as assistant microbiologist in the Department of Public Health. There was no prospect of advancement and her life was circumscribed by routine and Wasserman tests for syphilis about which, thanks to her war service, she was an acknowledged expert. Between 1925 and 1935 she was on the committee of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children and with Dr Maisie Hamilton, was responsible for the venereal diseases clinic which opened there in 1927, reputedly the model for other clinics in Australia and South Africa. She worked with the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service during the 1939-45 war.

She had settled in Greenwich soon after her return, sharing her house for some years with the family of her elder sister. Another sister joined her in the 1930s. Elsie was in ill health when she retired in 1946; she died on 1 October 1948. All who knew her agreed that she was one of those rare beings whom it was a privilege to know.

Ann M. Mitchell