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Cuthbert Browne, Grace Johnston (1900–1988)

by Elspeth Browne

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

Grace Johnston Cuthbert Browne (1900-1988), medical practitioner, was born on 2 January 1900 at Port Glasgow, Scotland, fifth (fourth surviving) and youngest child of John Cuthbert, shipmaster, and his wife Mary, née Ross. Grace came to Australia at the age of 1, when her father was appointed chief marine surveyor for a group of insurance companies in Sydney. Raised a Presbyterian, she was educated at Ravenswood, Gordon, and the University of Sydney (MB, Ch.M., 1924). She worked in the pathology laboratories of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, and Royal North Shore Hospital, St Leonards, becoming resident medical officer (1924-25) at the latter. Her years in general practice at Pambula and Eden (192629) on the New South Wales south coast and at Wollstonecraft, Sydney (1929-37), fired her enthusiasm for obstetrics and infant welfare. From 1929 to 1937 she served as an honorary medical officer at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies (Tresillian) and the Lane Cove Baby Health Centre.

In 1937 Dr Cuthbert was appointed director of maternal and baby welfare in the Department of Public Health of New South Wales. She promoted meticulous antenatal care and established free baby-health centres. During her 28-year incumbency maternal and infant mortality declined dramatically, from 4.91 to 0.35 mothers, and from 40.68 to 20.29 infants, per thousand live births. Her drive and organisational ability contributed much to this improvement. The programs she developed became models nationally and were recognised internationally.

Cuthbert’s influence was felt through her work on innumerable committees, including the Child Welfare Advisory Council of New South Wales and the maternal and child health committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, as well as through her teaching (1946-69) in maternal and child health in the school of public health and tropical medicine at the University of Sydney. Medical secretary of the committee investigating maternal mortality in the State in the 1950s, she wrote a report on the subject which was published in the Medical Journal of Australia (1960). On her retirement as director in 1965 she was appointed to Grosvenor Hospital for handicapped children and remained there until her second retirement in 1970.

In 1950 Grace had met Francis James Browne, a visiting distinguished obstetrician and gynaecologist whom she had admired since reading his 1935 text on antenatal and postnatal care. While in England on a World Health Organization travelling scholarship, she married the 71-year-old widower on 15 February 1951 at the Scotch National Church, Westminster, London, and they returned to Sydney. Settling at Wollstonecraft, she and `F. J.’ had a happy marriage based on mutual love and respect and close professional interests; he died in 1963.

One of Grace Cuthbert Browne’s commitments was to encourage women in the professions. In 1952, while president of the Australian Federation of Medical Women, she was elected vice-president of the Medical Women’s International Association. She was president (1952-54) of the Australian Federation of University Women, Australian convenor of the standing committee on public health for the Australian National Council of Women for many years, and a member of Soroptimist International from 1961. When she was awarded an honorary doctorate of medicine (1986) at the University of Sydney, John Ward, the vice-chancellor, described her as `a distinguished graduate who has contributed notably to the advancement of public health and to community appreciation of the status of womanhood generally’.

Appointed MBE in 1959, Cuthbert Browne was elected to fellowships of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (1959), the Australian Medical Association (1971) and the Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (foundation fellow 1978). She was also active in numerous cultural and community organisations and was a member of the Avondale Golf and Queen’s clubs. A modest woman who generously acknowledged her teachers, colleagues and husband, she devoted her working life to the well-being of infants and their mothers. Warm, even sentimental, and childless, she was a loving `second mother’ to the children of her close circle of women friends and to the younger members of her extended family. She died on 17 December 1988 at St Leonards and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Blackall et al (eds), The People Who Made Australia Great (1988)
  • Report of the Director-General of Public Health, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1937-64
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sept 1986, `Northern Herald’ supplement, p 21, 19 Dec 1988, p 4
  • H. de Berg, interview with G. Cuthbert Browne (transcript, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • W. G. McBride, proposal for Dr Cuthbert Browne’s candidature for an honorary Doctorate of Medicine, and G. C. Browne, Curriculum Vitae (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Elspeth Browne, 'Cuthbert Browne, Grace Johnston (1900–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cuthbert-browne-grace-johnston-12387/text22263, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 June 2018.

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

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