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Dalyell, Elsie Jean (1881–1948)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Elsie Jean Dalyell (1881-1948), pathologist, was born on 13 December 1881 at Newtown, Sydney, second daughter of James Melville Dalyell, mining engineer, and his wife Jean, née McGregor. Educated at Sydney Girls' High School under Lucy Garvin, she joined the Department of Public Instruction as a pupil-teacher in 1897. Sponsored by the department she completed first year arts and science at the University of Sydney. She suffered a hysterectomy in 1905, and next year resigned as a teacher and transferred to second-year medicine. Entering the Women's College in 1909, she graduated M.B. with first-class honours that year and Ch.M. in 1910. With Mary Burfitt, she followed Jessie Aspinall as a pioneer female resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1911-12 Elsie Dalyell was the first woman on the full-time medical school staff as demonstrator in pathology, and in December 1912 the first Australian woman elected to a Beit fellowship, which she took up at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London.

Distracted by the war, she joined Lady Wimborne's Serbian Relief Fund unit which went to Skopje (Uskub) to help with the typhus epidemic in 1915. Rather to her annoyance, she was safe at the Addington Park war hospital, Croydon, when Skopje was overrun by the Bulgarians in October. In 1916 she joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service unit at Royaumont, France, and afterwards enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Malta and Salonika, Greece. Early in 1919 she went to Constantinople to deal with cholera, and in June was appointed O.B.E.; she had been twice mentioned in dispatches.

In 1919-22 she worked in Vienna as senior clinician to a research team led by Dr (Dame) Harriette Chick, studying deficiency diseases in children. As part of a re-education programme, Drs Chick and Dalyell presented and published scientific papers in German soon after their arrival. Elsie Dalyell also spoke French. In 1923 the team produced perhaps 'the most complete study' of human rickets prophylaxis ever undertaken.

For family reasons, and in the belief that she had a duty to give Australia the benefit of her experience, she returned in March 1923, travelling via the United States of America for a lecture tour on the Vienna research. The British regretted their loss and the Americans tried to detain her. Ironically, there was no suitable professional opportunity in Sydney. Without capital, her attempt at private practice in Macquarie Street failed. In January 1924 she began duty as assistant microbiologist in the Department of Public Health. There was no prospect of advancement and her life was circumscribed by routine and Wasserman tests for syphilis about which, thanks to her war service, she was an acknowledged expert. Between 1925 and 1935 she was on the committee of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children and with Dr Maisie Hamilton, was responsible for the venereal diseases clinic which opened there in 1927.

In appearance Elsie Dalyell was of medium height and heavy build with broad forehead, light blue eyes, 'apricot' complexion and 'cream' hair. When in Vienna she adopted a suited mode which, with minor variations according to season, she affected ever after. She read 'omnivorously' and collected etchings and other objets d'art with discrimination. All who knew her agreed that she was one of those rare beings whom it was a privilege to know.

She had settled at Seaman Street, Greenwich, soon after her return, sharing her house for some years with the family of her elder sister Lindsay Hazelton. Her sister Elizabeth (Bess) joined her in the mid-1930s. By retirement in 1946, Elsie Dalyell was in bad health with hypertensive arterial disease and a weak heart. She died at home of coronary occlusion on 1 November 1948 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. Her estate was valued for probate at £7086.

Select Bibliography

  • Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the Great War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • Town and Country Journal, 25 Dec 1912
  • British Medical Journal, 21 Dec 1912, 21 Aug 1915, 9 June 1923
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 22 Jan 1949
  • correspondence, Kogarah Public School, 5/16494 (State Records New South Wales)
  • The Women's College, and University records (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Dalyell, Elsie Jean (1881–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dalyell-elsie-jean-5875/text9995, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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