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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Herring, Dame Mary Ranken (1895–1981)

by Cheryl Crockett

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

Dame Mary Ranken Herring (18951981), medical practitioner, was born on 31 March 1895 at Carlton, Melbourne, eldest child of Irish-born (Sir) Thomas Ranken Lyle, professor of natural philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and his Victorian-born wife Clare, nee Millear. Mary was educated at Toorak College, where she excelled both scholastically and in sport, and was head of school (1911-12). She studied at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1921), graduating with first-class honours and several prizes in medicine, winning Blues in hockey and tennis and serving on the Students’ Representative Council. Her internship at the (Royal) Women’s Hospital shaped a commitment to advance women’s and children’s welfare.

On 6 April 1922 at Toorak Presbyterian Church, Melbourne, Mary married (Sir) Edmund Francis Herring, a barrister whom she had met on his leave from military service in 1918. A devoted mother of three daughters, she maintained contact with medical colleagues, including Richard Fetherston and Vera Scantlebury Brown, who sought to improve ante-natal care. At Fetherston’s invitation, in 1926 she established a clinic providing such services at the Prahran Health Centre. One day each week until 1945 she treated impoverished women, many with debilitating illnesses, who struggled to survive in sub-standard conditions, often worked throughout their pregnancy to provide for their families, and experienced high rates of maternal mortality.

Galvanised by this exposure, and her long association with the Melbourne District Nursing Society (vice-president, 1943-53), in 1934 Dr Herring joined George Simpson and Victor Wallace in opening the Women’s Welfare Clinic. Against opposition from some in the medical fraternity and conservative sections of society, she pioneered family planning services. While in her later years concerned that access to birth control had resulted in promiscuity, she maintained that, in the straitened circumstances of the 1930s, this assistance was vital for women who had no other access to medical care.

With the outbreak of World War II, Mary Herring was active in the formation of the AIF Women’s Association (foundation chairman, 1940; president, 1943-46) to assist women while their husbands, sons and brothers fought overseas. When her husband became chief justice (1944) and lieutenant-governor (1945) of Victoria, Lady Herring put aside medical practice and assumed a wide range of official posts including those of founding president of the Victorian Council of Social Service (1946-50), chairman of the Scantlebury Brown Memorial Trust (1946-79), and deputy-president of the Victorian division of the Australian Red Cross Society (1944-63) and of the Victoria League (1945-72). President of Toorak College council (1947-48 and 1960-70) and of the Australian council of the Save the Children Fund (1962-67), she was a tireless worker and patron for many charities, with particular interests in spastic and handicapped children, child-care organisations and amateur sporting organisations for girls and women. She was a member of the Lyceum and Alexandra clubs.

The Argus in 1949 described Lady Herring as an outstanding example of `selfless devotion to the service of others’: `calm, kindly, clear-minded, and intensely logical’. She was appointed a Commander of the Order of St John in 1953 and DBE in 1960. Dame Mary died on 26 October 1981 at Camberwell, Melbourne, predeceasing her husband by ten weeks, and survived by their daughters. She was cremated. The Mary Herring hall and scholarship at Toorak College commemorate her service.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Rosenthal, People—Not Cases (1974)
  • J. Robinson, The Echoes Fade Not (1987)
  • D. Hilton, Dr Mary (1989)
  • J. McCalman, Sex and Suffering (1998)
  • Argus (Melbourne), `Women’s Magazine’, 6 Sept 1949, p 3.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cheryl Crockett, 'Herring, Dame Mary Ranken (1895–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 3 August 2020.

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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