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Booth, Mary (1869–1956)

by Jill Roe

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

Mary Booth (1869-1956), by John Samuel Watkins

Mary Booth (1869-1956), by John Samuel Watkins

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2292708

Mary Booth (1869-1956), physician and welfare worker, was born on 9 July 1869 at Burwood, Sydney, eldest of three daughters of William Booth, schoolmaster, and his wife Ruth, née Sewell. Educated by Mrs Cornell, she matriculated from Airlie School in 1886 and attended the University of Sydney (B.A., 1890). In 1891-93 she was governess to the children of the Earl of Jersey, governor of New South Wales. A legacy from her maternal grandfather Thomas Sewell in 1893 gave her some financial independence. After briefly studying as a medical student at the University of Melbourne in 1894, she left for Scotland, accompanied by her sister Eliza (Bay), and in July next year enrolled at the College of Medicine for Women, University of Edinburgh (M.B., C.M., 1899). After some experience in infirmaries, she returned to Sydney in 1900.

Dr Booth's medical career was relatively short lived and she never worked in an Australian hospital. Although she kept rooms near Macquarie Street until 1910, much of her practice was contractual with, for example, the Australian Mutual Provident Society. Appointed to the Department of the Government Statistician as anthropometrist in 1900, she lectured on hygiene at girls' secondary schools. Strongly feminist, she was a founder of the Women's Club in 1901, and corresponding secretary in 1905-07 and later a vice-president of the National Council of Women of New South Wales. She was lecturer in hygiene for the Department of Public Instruction in 1904-09, and then in 1910-12 was employed by the Victorian Department of Education to help to establish the first school medical service in that State. She published in the Transactions of the Australasian Medical Congress and of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and in the Australasian Medical Gazette. In 1913 she visited Britain and represented the Commonwealth government at the English-Speaking Conference on Infant Mortality, London.

Back in Sydney by 1914, Mary Booth quickly responded to the domestic problems raised by World War I; her offer to supervise refugee camps in Egypt was refused as she was too well qualified. In November she founded the Babies' Kit Society for the Allies' Babies and in June next year opened the Soldiers' Club in the Royal Hotel, George Street; she was its honorary secretary until it closed in 1923, and she ran it very strictly. From September 1915 she was a member of the executive committee of the Universal Service League and campaigned vigorously for conscription. Other war-work included organizing the Centre for Soldiers' Wives and Mothers and setting up a war widows' fund. In 1918 she was appointed O.B.E. She was defeated in 1920 for the North Shore seat in the Legislative Assembly as an independent feminist candidate and, supported by the Women's Reform League, failed after negotiations to stand for a Senate seat in 1922.

Fiercely patriotic, Dr Booth determined to promote and protect the Anzac tradition; in 1921 she founded the Anzac Fellowship of Women and remained president until 1956. It was the only civilian organization granted the right by W. M. Hughes to use the name 'Anzac'. An equally ardent advocate of increased immigration, she was an office-bearer of the New Settlers' League of Australia, and a member of the Women's Migration Council of New South Wales. When British ex-servicewomen began arriving in Sydney, mostly as assisted migrants, she founded the Ex Service Women's Club. From 1921 she looked after boys migrating under the 'Dreadnought scheme' and in 1923 set up the Empire Service Club. She raised funds, supervised the Empire Service Hostel and in 1925-44 published the monthly Boy Settler, all as a contribution to maintaining 'our own British Stock' and counteracting communism. She kept in contact with her boys and worked closely with the Department of Labour.

Incorrigibly active, Dr Booth belonged to the University of Sydney Society for Combating Venereal Diseases after the war, and in the 1920s to the League of Nations Union and the English-Speaking Union. A member of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales, in 1920 she told the royal commission on the basic wage that young families could be happily brought up in a flat if it was designed with proper space for the children; in 1929 she attended the 12th Congress of the International Federation for Housing and Town Planning in Rome, and visited Britain.

In 1931 the Anzac Fellowship of Women set up the Anzac Festival Committee, with Dr Booth as chairman and the governor-general Lord Gowrie and Lady Gowrie as patrons, to encourage the arts rather than sport in the 'Anzac Season'. In 1939 Mary Booth persuaded Sir Robert Garran to write the script for an historical pageant beginning with Richard Coeur de Lion. Her last major initiative was to found in 1936 the Memorial College of Household Arts and Science, on land adjoining her home at Kirribilli; she firmly believed that 'good wives make good husbands'. In 1961 its funds were used to found the Dr Mary Booth scholarship for women economics students at the University of Sydney.

She died in the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children on 28 November 1956 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her estate was valued for probate at £14,335.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission on the Basic Wage (Syd, 1920), Evidence
  • National Council of Women (New South Wales), Jubilee Report, 1896-1946
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 23 Feb 1957
  • R. F. H. Row, ‘School medical services in Victoria’, Health Bulletin (Victoria), 5 (1959)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Feb 1920, 26 July, 9 Nov 1929, 27 Apr 1958, 17 May 1969
  • I. L. Marden, Dr. Mary Booth … (1957, State Library of New South Wales)
  • R. Mackinnon, Mary Booth, a Biography (1969, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Anzac Fellowship of Women papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Mary Booth papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Miles Franklin correspondence, 1923-53 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • R. R. Garran papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Booth, Mary (1869–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 October 2016.

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

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