Dr Mary Blythe Wheeler & Dr Bernice Stratford

In the space of two weeks from Christmas Day 2016, the Melbourne Medical School lost two remarkable women and pioneering members of staff.

As their lives were closely intermeshed professionally, and as they were good friends sharing regular lunches until shortly before their deaths, it seems appropriate to celebrate their lives jointly.

Dr Mary Blythe Wheeler (BSc 1939, MBBS 1941) was born in Mornington to Philip (a pharmacist and JP) and Alice Wheeler. She attended Frankston State Primary School and then the recently-founded (1924) Frankston High School—a school created under the Education Act 1912 that had introduced secondary education for the whole population. For her final years of schooling, Dr Blythe was sent to board at Phelia Grimwade House, Melbourne Girls Grammar School, in 1934. She had a passionate interest in nature and a brilliant mind and so began a BSc at the University of Melbourne as a 16-year-old in 1935, taking up residence in Janet Clarke Hall. Her wish was to study medicine but, due to her youth, this was not possible, so a science degree became the only alternative, and she graduated BSc in 1939, while studying medicine. It must have been firstly during her science degree that she came under the influence of the charismatic Professor of Anatomy, Frederic Wood Jones, as she was one of the select members of the pioneering ecological expeditions he organised to the Bass Strait islands in the holidays. Her considerable contributions as a zoologist are preserved in the copious outputs of those expeditions—in publications, maps, photographs and film.

Dr Blythe graduated MBBS in September 1941 (a few months earlier than usual because of the Second World War), having won numerous prizes, awards and scholarships. From 1941 she was a Resident at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for nearly two years and in 1943 she married her fellow classmate, Alan Ross Wakefield, with whom she had four children. In 1969 they were divorced and she reverted to her maiden name. At this time she was involved in a gallstone research project at the Melbourne Medical School. A younger colleague, Chris Briggs, recalls:

Mary held a lectureship when I first started teaching in the department, in 1975, and she and I (together with Coralie Kenny) taught the first dissection-based Science anatomy course to run in Australia. Many graduates from this course went on to study medicine, dentistry or the health sciences. She helped run dissection for the medical students and also taught dental students, therefore had an extensive knowledge of all areas of anatomy. Mary was a very pleasant colleague, very knowledgeable anatomist and an excellent prosector. She spent many hours in the staff dissecting room and her prosections were used for many years. Mary was a demanding teacher and became somewhat annoyed when the students couldn’t recall details she had covered in her lectures or tutorials. She had a good sense of humour, however, and would make us laugh often. Mary was a valued colleague and mentor to me in the early stages of my career.

During the 1970s, Dr Blythe also became Doctor in Residence and Deputy Principal at University Women’s College (now University College). In the 1980s and ’90s she lived in ‘Hurst’—a cottage in the Bickleigh Vale community in Mooroolbark, created by the visionary garden designer, Edna Walling, where she gardened with enthusiasm. During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s she bush-walked and travelled extensively, both within Australia and overseas, with her great friend and noted botanist, Gretna Weste. Dr Blythe was a pillar of the community, including acting as a Guide at Healesville Sanctuary, a reader to the Vision Impaired, a volunteer at the Mission of St James and St John in Mooroolbark (later part of Anglicare), and a contributor to many charities—her favourite being Médecins Sans Frontières.

Dr Bernice Stratford (MBBS 1950, PhD 1965)—Bernie to her friends—was born to Harry and Ruby Miller and spent her early years in the Mallee, on the farm her father had taken up under the soldier settlement scheme after returning from the First World War. For her secondary schooling she attended the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy as a boarder. After the interruption of the Second World War she attended Melbourne Medical School with a scholarship, graduating MBBS in 1950, specialising in obstetrics. It was during these years that she met another medical graduate, Brian Stratford, who she married in 1950 and with whom she subsequently had six children. After a period raising her children and working as a GP in Moonee Ponds and then Bairnsdale, Dr Stratford then returned to the University and worked in the Pathology Department under Edgar King, gaining a PhD in Histology and taking up a senior lectureship in Histology and Embryology in the Anatomy Department from 1965. Until that time no woman had ever been appointed to a permanent academic position in the Anatomy Department, although female medical graduates had been around for over 80 years, and few, if any, postgraduates in the Department were female. She recalled, when interviewed in 2007, that it was some years before her older male colleagues deemed that she was capable of teaching medical students, rather than her usual diet of dental and physiotherapy students. A later member of the department, and subsequent Head, Daine Alcorn, remembered Bernie as an especially welcoming teacher and colleague. She remained in the Department into the 1980s and took early retirement to teach in rural China, where she combined instructing practitioners how to use newly-donated medical technology with teaching medical English.
Dr Stratford was a devout Roman Catholic and an active member of the St Carthage’s Parkville community.

Dr Mary Wheeler and Dr Bernice Stratford both made a remarkable contribution to the medical community of Melbourne and beyond, and not just in forwarding the role of women. Their achievements cannot be underestimated as they juggled the traditional role of women as wives and mothers with the rigours of academic and professional lives, not always with the understanding by others of the difficulties this involved. They will be greatly missed by those that knew them and those whose lives they touched.

Dr Ross L Jones (BA (Hons) 1978, GDipEd 1979) with the assistance of Chris Briggs, Coralie Kenny, Robert and Liz Wakefield and Clive Stratford.