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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Russell, Emmie (1892–1987)

by Margaret Park

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Emmie Russell (1892-1987), orthoptist, was born on 18 August 1892 in Adelaide, third of four children of William Reid Russell, engineer, and his wife Emma, née Goldsbrough.  Her father was related to Sir Peter Nicol Russell.  The family moved to Sydney and lived at Petersham, then Stanmore.  Emmie attended the Misses Harriott’s school and, in 1909, Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Croydon.  During World War I she was a Red Cross volunteer.  As the only surviving daughter in her family she was assigned household chores and it was not until the early 1930s that she embarked upon a career.

Due to family connections with the ophthalmologists J. Ringland Anderson and (Sir) Norman Gregg, Russell was encouraged to take an interest in orthoptics, which specialises in the study of eye movement and the treatment of vision disorders.  It was in its infancy as a profession and attracted mainly women.  Anderson has been credited with introducing in 1932 the training of orthoptists.  Russell, one of his first group of students at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, completed the course and in 1933 established a practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney.  She soon joined the newly created orthoptic clinic at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, where Gregg was the ophthalmic surgeon.  Continuing her association with Anderson during World War II, Russell contributed her services to a Royal Australian Air Force training program which aimed to increase pilots’ flying performance by the use of orthoptic examination and corrective procedures.

Deeply involved in the development of her profession, in 1938 Russell had registered with the Orthoptics Council of New South Wales and subsequently with the Orthoptic Board of Australia, when it was formed in 1944.  With a fellow student and colleague, Diana Mann, later Craig, she helped to establish (1944) the Orthoptic Association of Australia.  The association’s president (1944-47, 1950-51), councillor (until 1953) and honorary life member (1959), Russell was the first orthoptist to be patron.

Russell remained single, dedicated to her career and the care of her elderly mother.  She was an intelligent, caring individual who had a flair for stylish dressing and was rarely seen without a scarf elegantly draped around her shoulders.  After retiring in 1956 Russell continued to encourage young orthoptists; she donated funds to the orthoptic association for the Emmie Russell prize, awarded annually to a new member for an outstanding paper presented at its scientific meeting.

A niece of John Peter Russell, and a cousin of Thea Proctor, Russell was a keen art collector.  When she was in her late eighties she donated many of her treasures, including those given to her by Proctor, to Australian art galleries, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia.  Aged 95, Miss Russell died on 7 September 1987 at Elizabeth Bay and was cremated.  A memorial service was held at All Saints Church, Woollahra.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Orthoptic Journal, no 6, 1964, p 4
  • Australian Orthoptic Journal, no 13, 1973, p 2
  • Australian Orthoptic Journal, no 26, 1990, p 48
  • private information

Citation details

Margaret Park, 'Russell, Emmie (1892–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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