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Barrett, Edith Helen (1872–1939)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Edith Helen Barrett (1872-1939), medical practitioner, was born on 29 October 1872 at Emerald Hill, Victoria, eighth child of Dr James Barrett and his wife Catherine, née Edkins. Educated at South Melbourne College, in 1888 she matriculated in eight subjects but did not sign the matriculation roll until 1897 when she began a medical course at the University of Melbourne; she graduated M.B. in 1901 and M.D. in 1907. Four of her brothers, including (Sir) James, were also doctors. Edith was resident medical officer at the Melbourne Hospital in 1901 and three years later joined the honorary medical staff of the Queen Victoria Hospital, from which she retired in 1934.

Edith Barrett was in general practice first in South Melbourne and then in Collins Street. Her practice was never extensive and she made only a bare livelihood from it. Her interests and energies were devoted rather to a number of voluntary organizations, particularly those concerned with improving medical and social conditions for poorer women and children. She was a foundation member of the National Council of Women in Victoria in 1902, and in 1911-15 and 1921-26 was its honorary secretary. Her constructive approach to social problems is evident in the council's work, particularly in the founding of the Bush Nursing Association of Victoria in 1910; Edith was a member of its first central council as a representative of the Victorian Women's Medical Association.

In November 1914, when her brother James sailed with the Australian Imperial Force for Egypt, Edith replaced him as honorary secretary to both the Bush Nursing Association and the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society. She held the position at the B.N.A. till 1920 when he again took over and she became honorary assistant secretary until 1935. The association's headquarters was at 105 Collins Street where both Edith and James practised; it is likely that the routine administration and correspondence fell to the honorary assistant.

A full-time paid secretary was employed at the Australian Red Cross from 1915, and James did not resume the honorary position on his return; Edith held it till 1928. Her main Red Cross activities, however, were with the Victorian division, of which she was a foundation committee-member, remaining on both council and committee until 1936-37. During the war she had been active on numerous divisional committees; for this work she received both the O.B.E. and the C.B.E. in 1918.

Edith had been an enthusiastic motorist from pre-war days, even doing her own car-repairs. She enjoyed gardening, and recommended fruit-growing and bee-keeping as combining the 'utilitarian with the health giving'. In 1912 she was a foundation member of the Lyceum Club and a trustee until 1926. She died on 1 February 1939 of a heart condition at a nursing home in Malvern, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. She had been an indefatigable worker for humanitarian causes, intelligent and sensitive, oblivious of her own material advancement or comfort. She was always over-shadowed by her brother, especially at the B.N.A. The mental collapse which darkened the last years of her life caused her to be forgotten even before she died. Of the associations which she had served, only the National Council of Women noted her death.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • Lone Hand, 1 Sept 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1939
  • Bush Nursing Association of Victoria, Annual Report, 1911-39, and Central Council Minutes, 1914-37 (Melbourne)
  • British Red Cross Society, Australian Branch, Annual Report, 1914-39, and Victorian Division, Annual Report, 1914-39 (Melbourne)
  • National Council of Women (Victoria), executive and council minutes, 1902-39 (Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Barrett, Edith Helen (1872–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barrett-edith-helen-5143/text8609, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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