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Osborne, Ethel Elizabeth (1882–1968)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ethel Elizabeth Osborne (1882-1968), medical practitioner and industrial hygienist, was born on 30 January 1882 at Armley, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, second child of James Goodson, butcher and later businessman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Lockley. Educated at Yorkshire College and the University of Leeds (M.Sc., 1907), she retained a broad Yorkshire accent throughout her life. On 10 December 1903 at Armley Church of England she married William Alexander Osborne and soon after sailed with him to Melbourne, where he had been appointed professor of physiology and histology at the university. The Osborne family, which included eventually three daughters and a son, lived at the university, spending their holidays at Lowestoft, a rambling timber house at Warrandyte.

In London with her husband in 1910 Ethel Osborne, who was a foundation member of the new Victorian women's group, the Catalysts, visited the Lyceum Club. She became enthusiastic about the formation of a Lyceum Club in Melbourne, and, at its inaugural meeting on 21 March 1912, was elected vice-president. A daughter recalled of that period: 'Mother was constantly at meetings … There was always activity in the University houses in those days and we learned early to … enjoy the intellectual wars over Sunday crumpets'.

During World War I Ethel Osborne served for two years with the British Ministry of Munitions of War in night welfare work and as head supervisor in ordnance factories. She conducted investigations for the Health of Munition Workers' Committee and the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, and later published reports including Industrial Hygiene as Applied to Munition Workers (1921) and, with H. M. Vernon, Two Contributions to the Study of Accident Causation (1922). On her return to Melbourne in 1919 she was invited to report to the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration on the conditions of employment of women workers in the clothing industry, for a case which won some workers a forty-four-hour week.

After the war Ethel Osborne studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, sharing the Fulton prize for obstetrics and gynaecology, (M.B., B.S., 1923; Dip. Public Health, 1931). She practised medicine at various times at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Children and the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital and privately. In 1924 she published her report on the health of female workers in the printing and allied trades, commissioned by the union. She was a Commonwealth delegate to the fourth and fifth international congresses on industrial accidents and diseases at Amsterdam (1925) and Budapest (1928).

A lifelong interest in the education of women was expressed in Dr Osborne's association with the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy. A foundation member of its council in 1912, she served as treasurer, vice-president and president (1915-17, 1919-29). When the college's new premises were opened in 1927, its hall was named after her. Through this interest she became involved in the development of the profession of dietetics, collaborating with her husband on subsequent editions of his Primer of Dietetics (1910), and writing, lecturing and broadcasting on the subject. While overseas in 1928-29 she investigated dietary departments and schools for St Vincent's Hospital.

In 1928 Ethel Osborne represented Australia at the Pan-Pacific Women's Conference in Honolulu. She chaired the health section and afterwards conferred with the secretariat of the League of Nations and the International Labour Office about welfare in industry. In March 1921 she had visited the United States of America and investigated industrial hygiene and medicine, women's unionism and home economics. At the second Pan-Pacific Women's Conference (Honolulu, 1930), she was programme secretary and liaison officer for the League of Nations and the I.L.O. In 1931 she attended the Congress on Industrial Accidents and Diseases in Geneva, the International Congress on Industrial Relations in Amsterdam and the Disarmament Conference in Paris, and investigated employment problems in Yorkshire.

Nominated by the Federal Labor Women's Organisation and supported by the Australian Federation of Women Voters, Ethel Osborne was appointed substitute delegate to the League of Nations assembly in September 1931. Next year she was again alternate delegate, after practising medicine as a locum in England for some months. In 1937 she attended four public health congresses in England and an international congress on cancer research in Brussels.

A somewhat absent-minded mother and housekeeper and a notoriously erratic car-driver, Ethel Osborne retired in 1938 with her husband to their property at Kangaroo Ground, where they lived frugally off their own produce. A fellow member of the Lyceum Club remembered her as a 'brilliantly clever woman' who was always 'to the forefront of those who wished to advance the status of women'. Her unconventionality, strong will and boundless energy, allied to warmth, charm and a great sense of humour, made her a formidable fighter for the causes she espoused. However, in late life her eccentricity of behaviour and dress became more marked and her health declined. She died in an East Melbourne hospital on 3 December 1968 and was cremated. Her four children survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Moore, The Quest for Peace (Melb, 1949)
  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • J. Docherty, The Emily Mac (Melb, 1981?)
  • Commonwealth Arbitration Reports, 13, 1919
  • Woman's World, 1 Sept 1928
  • Journal of Food and Nutrition, 42, no 3, 1985
  • Warrandyte Historical Society, Newsletter, no 51, Oct 1986
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 July, 15 Aug, 27 Sept 1928, 2 Feb 1929, 15 Sept 1930, 6, 21 Aug, 8 Sept 1931, 15, 20 Dec 1932
  • Rischbieth papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Osborne papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Osborne, Ethel Elizabeth (1882–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/osborne-ethel-elizabeth-7925/text13791, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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