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Harper, Margaret Hilda (1879–1964)

by Victoria Cowden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Margaret Hilda Harper (1879-1964), paediatrician, was born on 4 April 1879 in Melbourne, third child of Rev. Andrew Harper, principal of the Presbyterian Ladies' College, and his first wife Agnes Marian (d.1885), née Craig. Brought up by aunts and housekeepers until her father remarried in 1892, Margaret was a half-sister of Robert Rainy Harper and niece of Robert Harper. She was educated at P.L.C. and matriculated at the University of Melbourne in 1899, sharing the W. T. Mollison scholarship for a year of study in Italy. She began medicine in 1901, but next year transferred to the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1906) when her father became principal of St Andrew's College. She worked briefly as an honorary medical officer at the Sydney Medical Mission and as a resident at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne.

In 1907 Dr Harper returned to Sydney to the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, and from 1910 was at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. She was honorary physician at the first Baby Health Centre opened at Alexandria in 1914, a council-member of the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies and medical director of its Mothercraft Homes and Training Schools (Tresillian) in 1919-49, a founder of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children in 1922, and first honorary doctor to care for new-born babies at the Royal Hospital in 1926. She supplemented her income from her small practice in Macquarie Street by administering anaesthesia until she developed diabetes in 1929.

Recognizing the need to simplify and demystify the formulas for infant care, Margaret Harper resisted the commercialization of infant food preparations and, after a visit to New Zealand in 1919, quietly but firmly rejected the 'Plunkett system' devised by Dr Truby King. She painstakingly experimented with infant diets and won international repute for discovering the difference between coeliac disease and cystic fibrosis of the pancreas in 1930.

In 1926 Margaret Harper published The Parents' Book on child care, which ran to twenty editions over some thirty years. In 1930-38 she lectured to medical students on mothercraft at the university and in 1933-36 as 'The Lady Doctor' broadcast weekly fifteen-minute sessions for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. She served on the Hospitals Commission of New South Wales in 1936-44 and the Child Welfare Advisory Council from 1949. She was a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1939, and an honorary member of the Australian Paediatric Association from 1952. Analytical and forthright, she was outstanding in her dedication and benevolence. Although sometimes impatient, she inspired confidence in her patients and their parents.

A tall, dignified and beautiful woman, Margaret Harper was proud of her Scots heritage and adhered to the Presbyterian faith. She enjoyed golf and read widely in medicine, religion and literature. For over fifty years she lived at Wollstonecraft with her close friend Helen Wark, lecturer in art at the Teachers' College, Sydney. She died in hospital at Chatswood on 2 January 1964 and was cremated. A ward at the Rachel Forster Hospital and a diet kitchen at the Royal Alexandra Hospital were named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • L. R. Cohen, Dr. Margaret Harper (Syd, 1971)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 28 Oct 1939, 2 May 1964
  • Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies, Minutes, and Annual Reports (Sydney)
  • Margaret Harper papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Victoria Cowden, 'Harper, Margaret Hilda (1879–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harper-margaret-hilda-6570/text11301, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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