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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Butler, Hildred Mary (1906–1975)

by H. D. Attwood

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

Hildred Mary Butler (1906-1975), microbiologist, was born on 9 October 1906 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, daughter of Victorian-born parents Archie Butler, farmer, and his wife Rose Josephine, née Hancock. Hildred was educated at Lauriston Girls' School and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1928; D.Sc., 1946). In 1928 she became bacteriologist to the Baker Medical Research Institute, under the directorship of W. J. Penfold.

At that time severe—often fatal—infections were common in women during and after childbirth, or following abortion. From 1931 Butler examined material from patients at the (Royal) Women's Hospital, Melbourne, and demonstrated the importance of anaerobic streptococci. By 1937 she had determined that severe infections were due to that group of organisms, together with haemolytic streptococci, Staphylococcus pyogenes and Clostridium welchii. The 'childbed fever' (puerperal sepsis) of old had been most commonly due to Group A haemolytic streptococcus. In her ten years at the Baker Institute she published eight papers and a monograph, Blood Cultures and Their Significance (1937).

Transferring to the (Royal) Women's Hospital in 1938 as bacteriologist, Butler co-operated with the clinician A. M. 'Bung' Hill and established a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-week bacteriological service. She proved that infectiousness was linked only with Group A haemolytic streptococci and Staphylococcus pyogenes, and had the Victorian midwives' regulations modified accordingly in 1941. As infection with Group A streptococci and Clostridium welchii could kill more rapidly than these organisms could grow in culture, she developed an original method of assessing microscopically the stained smears from vaginal and cervical discharges, enabling treatment to start immediately. Hill estimated that, throughout her thirty-three years at the (Royal) Women's Hospital, Butler investigated almost 250 000 women with infections during childbirth and some 64 000 who had aborted. Her findings were recorded in twenty-one papers, published in Australia and overseas. She was treasurer (1940-56) of the Victorian Society of Pathology and Experimental Medicine, and president (1958 and 1964-65) of the Association of Hospital Scientists, Victoria.

Of medium height, trimly built, generally well dressed and carefully coiffured, Hildred wore elegant spectacles behind which her eyes might sparkle or glare. If the latter, she would draw herself up, straighten her dress, hesitate (because of a controlled stammer) and then issue a devastating remark. She was not medically qualified, but her clinical knowledge was respected by the senior medical staff. The juniors probably never regarded her as anything other than a 'proper doctor' and she dealt with them with peremptory authority. Her autocratic attitude was also seen in the laboratory where she had a bell-press under her desk to summon her staff. For all that, they admired and loved her.

Hildred Butler retired in 1971. Despite undergoing numerous operations for cancer, she continued to work, studying the part played by unusual forms of bacteria in causing persistent urinary tract infection. She died on 8 April 1975 in the Royal Women's Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her portrait by Alan Martin is held by the hospital.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Fenner (ed), History of Microbiology in Australia (Canb, 1990)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2, 1975, p 844
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 22, 1982, p 11
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Apr 1975.

Citation details

H. D. Attwood, 'Butler, Hildred Mary (1906–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 August 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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