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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Boelke, Grace Fairley (1870–1948)

by Lyn Brignell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Grace Fairley Boelke (1870-1948), medical practitioner, was born on 4 July 1870 at South Kingston, Sydney, second of four children of Thomas Charles Robinson, a clerk from Tasmania, and his Sydney-born wife Eliza Agnes, née Butler. Grace passed her junior public examination while attending St Vincent's College, Darlinghurst, and was tutored privately for matriculation. At the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1893) she was awarded the MacCormick prize for surgery in her third year, was ranked first in the midwifery examination in her finals and was one of the first two women to graduate in medicine. University testimonials referred to her 'zeal, energy and enthusiasm'.

Grace was nominated for a position at the Hospital for Sick Children. Despite excellent references, her application was rejected: the objection was 'not against [Dr Robinson] as an individual but against the female doctor in the abstract'. She was appointed resident medical officer at the Benevolent Asylum, Pitt Street. Five ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, with dark hair and striking, blue eyes, Grace was 'of noted beauty'. On 5 May 1894 at her parents' Double Bay home she married with Lutheran forms Paul Wilhelm Rudolph Boelke, a German-born, fellow medical graduate; they were to live at Manly.

In 1909 Grace became assistant medical inspecting officer with the Department of Public Instruction. After she had held the position for six years, the State branch of the British Medical Association questioned the suitability of her appointment in 1915. She resigned her post and her membership of the B.M.A. The anti-German feeling shown towards her took no account of her activity in 1903 as a member of the women's branch of the British Empire League in Australia.

In 1912 Grace had formed the Professional Women's Association, dedicated to improving social conditions for women and children. She was convenor (1913-26) of the standing committee on health for the National Council of Women of New South Wales, a founding member (1921) of the State branch of the League of Nations Union and vice-president of the Town Planning Association. In 1923-26, as medical director of Berlei Ltd, she had responsibility for the health and welfare of nearly six hundred female employees and for collaborating with designers on the 'correct anatomical lines of their garments'.

Following her husband's death in 1923, Grace had travelled abroad, inquiring into the state of health of women and children, and investigating circumstances in the workplace. In later life she suffered from asthma and moved to Leura in the Blue Mountains. Dr Boelke died on 17 February 1948 at Manly and was cremated with Anglican rites. Childless, she left most of her estate (sworn for probate at £31,429) to the library of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, for the endowment of medical research.

Select Bibliography

  • U. Bygott and K. Cable, Pioneer Women Graduates of the University of Sydney 1881-1921 (Syd, 1985)
  • National Council of Women, Biennial Report, 1913-18
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 61, pt 4, Dec 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 24 Oct 1919, 24 Sept, 17 Oct 1921, 15 Oct 1924, 3 Oct 1925, 11, 23, 25 Mar, 17 Apr 1926
  • Boelke papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyn Brignell, 'Boelke, Grace Fairley (1870–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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