Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cooper, Janet Pierson (1891–1984)

by Susan Priestley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Janet Pierson Cooper (1891-1984), medical practitioner, mayor and community worker, was born on 25 February 1891 at Elmsvale, Nova Scotia, Canada, daughter of William James Cooper, who ran a farm and a wood-lot, and his wife Margaret, née Ervin. Her father died when she was 4 and her sister still a toddler. Janet attended school at Middle Musquodoboit. The family had connections in the United States of America and at 16 she left for Boston, Massachusetts, intending to enrol as a nurse. Rejected because of her youth, she advertised for a position and went to the household of Dudley Page at Stoneham as companion for his adult daughter who was suffering from complications of diabetes. After her death, Page advised Janet to study medicine rather than nursing, and offered to pay her expenses. She completed the course, then based on homoeopathy, at Boston University (MD, 1917).

Through a Methodist minister, Seth Cary, brother-in-law of Wilbur Bouton, Cooper learned of a call from Melbourne Homoeopathic (Prince Henry’s) Hospital for resident medical officers, and was accepted for a three-year term. According to Jacqueline Templeton, the arrival of the `Yankee girl’ in October 1917 as the hospital’s first female doctor created a stir, but her vivacity and energy, and her skill as `a particularly fine anaesthetist’, won over her colleagues. She was on the honorary medical staff in 1921-48, and from 1928 was honorary anaesthetist. Convinced that homoeopathy’s benefits lay not in `drugs but humanity’, she embraced its melding with standard medicine during the 1920s.

On 22 October 1918 at Collingwood she married with Congregational forms Robert Jensen (d.1934), a 42-year-old musician. They moved to the USA in 1923 but a scarcity of jobs forced their return. King O’Malley, one of her many friends from widely divergent backgrounds, assisted her to secure a bank loan and she set up in private practice at 6 Kerferd Road, Albert Park. She married Frank Royden Beauchamp Swifte (d.1968), an inspector, on 6 April 1939 at Holy Advent Anglican Church, Malvern.

To ameliorate social problems affecting her patients, particularly women and children, Dr Cooper helped to invigorate local community support groups. In 1944-46 she was unsuccessful but polled well as an Independent in elections for South Melbourne City Council. Her backing was based on her membership of the League of Women Voters of Victoria (president 1967), the Melbourne Business and Professional Women’s Club (president 1959), the Lyceum Club, the Penguin Club of Australia (Victorian branch), the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Victoria, and numerous other community and charitable organisations.

In 1950, standing again as an Independent, Cooper was elected South Melbourne’s first female councillor. Defeated in 1953 but returned in 1956, she again broke new ground by serving as mayor in 1958-59. She lost to Doris Condon in 1962, but was reelected in 1963 and had a second mayoral term in 1965-66, before retiring. As councillor and mayor she had maintained her strong social focus, founding the South Melbourne Women’s Auxiliary, whose gatherings featured speakers and musicians, combined with fund-raising for local youth programs.

Cooper had been appointed OBE in 1959. In the early 1970s she moved to Hawthorn but continued to practise at Albert Park. To her intense satisfaction, she returned there for care at the South Port Community Nursing Home, which she had helped establish. She died on 6 June 1984 at the home and was cremated with the forms of the Uniting Church. Her daughter and adopted daughter survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Templeton, Prince Henry’s (1969)
  • S. Priestley, South Melbourne (1995)
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Aug 1944, p 3, 3 Sept 1958, p 8
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1958, p 15, 18 Oct 1965, p 3, 21 Feb 1970, p 38, 22 Dec 1978, p 11
  • Sunday Press (Melbourne), 3 May 1981, p 13
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Priestley, 'Cooper, Janet Pierson (1891–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-janet-pierson-12353/text22193, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 August 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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