Dr Margaret M Henderson OBE

Dr Margaret Mary Henderson OBE (MBBS 1938, MD 1941, DMedSc 2012) was born in Melbourne on November 13, 1915, the first child of the Reverend Kenneth Thorne Henderson (BA 1911, GDipEd 1912) and his wife Charlotte Mary, who was the eldest daughter of Rear Admiral Frederick Tickell.

13 NOVEMBER 1915 – 18 AUGUST 2017

For Margaret, service to others was long a family trait. Her father and her uncles Rupert and Alan all served in World War I; in 1915, both uncles died at Gallipoli, while Kenneth enlisted the following year as a chaplain in the 1st Australian Imperial Force and served in France, on the Somme, until 1918, when he was invalided home.

After the war, the family moved to Adelaide where Kenneth joined the staff of St Peter’s College as assistant chaplain and teacher. But in 1923, Margaret’s parents, along with the baby of the family, Kenneth junior, headed to Oxford to enable her father to study for a BLitt over three years, leaving Margaret and her two younger siblings in the care of their maternal grandmother Charlotte, a widow living in Denmark Street, Kew. Charlotte’s two adult daughters Kathleen and Lucy, an architect, assisted with the care of their cousins.

Margaret attended the Church of England Girls’ Grammar School in South Yarra, where she had received a scholarship. She was inspired by her paternal grandmother, Jessie, who lived in Harcourt Street, Hawthorn, and had demonstrated a passion for helping the less fortunate. Jessie became a founding member of the Housewives’ Association of Victoria and was instrumental in selecting candidates to be trained as medical social workers at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Jessie also joined the committee of the Melbourne District Nursing Society, later the Royal District Nursing Service, and campaigned for the society’s after-care home in Victoria Parade, Collingwood. In 1999, Margaret lovingly wrote of her memories of Jessie and her grandmother’s outreach activities.

Margaret and her family were again uprooted when, in 1927, while freelancing for the Melbourne Argus, her father accepted an offer as a lead writer for The West Australian. They travelled by sea from Melbourne, the only route available for getting to Perth.

Although an Anglican clergyman, Kenneth enrolled his three girls in Perth’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College. The great strength of the school was in the quality of its teachers. Margaret studied biology and was introduced to scientific methods, accurate observation and recording. In 1931, at the age of 16, she won the University Medal for best essay in English in Leaving Honours and was awarded a government university scholarship.

Career choices for women were at the time limited to teaching, nursing or office work. But Kenneth reckoned on medicine offering his daughter the best prospect for parity with men. In 1932, Margaret repeated Leaving Honours in order to take Latin, a prerequisite for medicine.

(She would later remark that Latin came in handy for crosswords and Scrabble.) She also won the state’s exhibitions in German and French that year.

As there was no medical school in Western Australia, she enrolled in first-year science at the brand-new campus of the University of Western Australia, at Crawley on the Swan River. The following year she moved to the University of Melbourne, enrolled in medicine and forged her first links with Janet Clarke Hall, where she later became its medical officer for 16 years and ultimately a Fellow of the College (appointed in 1966).

The government scholarship continued to fund Margaret’s studies for the duration of her course and with no strings attached. Margaret completed her MBBS in 1938, sharing the Exhibition in Surgery, and began her studies for a Doctor of Medicine. She undertook research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, worked in general practice in Ivanhoe and in Medical Outpatients at the Royal Melbourne.

When Margaret graduated from her MD in September, 1941, her proud parents and her grandmother Jessie were in attendance. There were 102 medical graduates – 15 were females, but Margaret was the only one awarded an MD. During 1941-42, she served with the Australian Military Forces in the rank of Captain.

In late 1945, Margaret was recruited by the Red Cross for post-war civilian work and was posted to Malaya as a senior medical officer working on a range of nutritional problems and tropical diseases. She continued her work for the Red Cross in London and Switzerland, developing an interest in respiratory and thoracic medicine.

In 1947, she passed the examinations in London for membership of the Royal College of Physicians. To afford the return passage home, Margaret volunteered as an escort and assistant surgeon for the Overseas League on the Ormonde, which was bound for Melbourne with a group of 50 orphan boys.

During the voyage, she diagnosed an acute case of appendicitis and operated successfully. The boy made a swift recovery and was able to go sightseeing in Fremantle. It was a rare event for a woman to operate at sea.

Back in Melbourne, Margaret became an honorary physician from 1947-75 and a specialist physician from 1976-82 at the Royal Melbourne. She was also a consultant physician at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women, vice-president of the Royal District Nursing Service and a member of their management committee for 18 years. In 1976, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to medicine, a rare distinction in that era.

In her so-called retirement, Margaret lived at ‘Karana’ in Walpole Street, Kew, supporting many causes and writing about her career and family history. Her works included Perspectives, cursory and clinical (1999), A Williamstown Doctor (1997) and George G Henderson’s Story (2000).

Margaret died on 18 August, 2017, aged 101. A memorial service was held at the Chapel of Holy Trinity, University of Melbourne.

Dr Jane Mayo Carolan OAM (BA 1969, MA 1975)
Archivist at Trinity Grammar School

*Amendment: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly stated that Dr Margaret Henderson was the author of Marking Feminist Times (2006).