Helen Mayo

Helen Mary Mayo (1878-1967), doctor, was born on 1 October 1878 at West Terrace, Adelaide, eldest of seven children of Henrietta Mary (born Donaldson) and George Gibbes Mayo. Her childhood was spent in a happy family atmosphere in which both parents played a large part in their children's development, boys and girls alike enjoying impromptu natural science lessons from their father on bush rambles. Educated by her parents to the age of ten, Helen then received morning lessons from a governess. Her formal schooling was brief - short periods at private schools and a year at the Advanced School for Girls.

Helen always wanted to be a doctor but being considered too young for medicine, enrolled in Arts at the University of Adelaide. After two years she transferred to medicine and topped her final year, winning the Everard Scholarship. In 1904-05 she gained experience in midwifery and children's diseases, working at Great Ormond Hospital, London, Coombe Hospital, Dublin and St Stephen's Hospital for Women and Children, Delhi. There she noticed a higher incidence of caesarean births among women in purdah than among poorer women who were not in purdah. The cause was rickets, though the link between vitamin D deficiency and rickets was not then known. In her letters she commented wryly she was admired in India where fat was a valued quality. Behind the competent professional persona was a very human woman who joked about her weight and regretted her 'unruly' hair.

Back in Adelaide, Dr Mayo set up a practice and was appointed honorary anaesthetist at the Children's Hospital and clinical bacteriologist at the Adelaide Hospital, her laboratory work there being the basis of her MD in 1926. Infant health was her major interest. In 1909 with her friend Harriet Stirling, she established a School for Mothers (the origin of the Mothers and Babies' Health Association, 1927), and Mareeba Hospital for babies. In the ethos of scientific rationality which then prevailed, woman's 'natural' or 'innate' mothering qualities were in question. Mayo believed women needed assistance in rearing healthy children, especially in an urban environment. She fought opposition to the hospitalising of sick babies, and made a systematic study of infant feeding and the problems of cross-infection. Later, with government assistance and much voluntary work, the Mothers and Babies' Health Association provided baby clinics which advised and reassured generations of young mothers.

At the Children's Hospital she was honorary assistant physician for out-patients from 1919 and 'indoor' honorary physician from 1926; she also had considerable responsibilities as an honorary physician at the Adelaide Hospital and the babies' hospital and a busy private practice. From 1926-34 she was a clinical lecturer in medical diseases of children at the University of Adelaide. In 1933 Mayo became a foundation member of the Australian College of Physicians. She wrote later that Dr E. Britten-Jones had said to her 'Now that you have given up midwifery, you are qualified to become a Fellow'. In 1935 she was awarded an OBE.

In private life and in public Mayo was supported by women friends and colleagues. In 1909 she was one of the founders of the Women Graduates' Club of the University of Adelaide and she also helped found a Lyceum Club, with the objective of advancing the status of women in professional life and in art and letters. She attributed the completion of her MD at a busy time to the support and encouragement received from her long term partner, Dr Constance Finlayson.

She maintained strong links with the University of Adelaide, serving on its Council from 1914-60, the first woman in Australia to be elected to the governing body of a university. She worked for the establishment of a residential college for women, St Ann's, and served as chairman of its council for many years. She was a member for over twenty years of various advisory committees on health matters to South Australian governments.

Her long career spanned a period in which infant mortality continued to decline and women became prominent members of the medical profession. She worked indefatigably and with humour in a public sphere very newly opened to women.


Alison Mackinnon

Alison Mackinnon The New Women: Early Women Graduates of Adelaide University 1987.