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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sexton, Hannah Mary Helen (1862–1950)

by Penny Russell

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

Women medical students, University of Melbourne, 1887; Helen Sexton is first woman standing on the left

Women medical students, University of Melbourne, 1887; Helen Sexton is first woman standing on the left

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/​62970

Hannah Mary Helen Sexton (1862-1950), surgeon, was born on 21 June 1862 in Melbourne, daughter of Irish parents Daniel Sexton, builder and architect, and his wife Maria, née Bromwell. She was educated at Carlton Ladies' College. After matriculating she planned to study medicine in England, as the medical school at the University of Melbourne was not open to women. Meanwhile she enrolled in arts and met Lilian Helen Alexander, who shared her ambition for a medical career. Resolving to press the university to admit female medical students, with the support of six other interested women they wrote to the university council and interviewed every council-member. Largely as a result of their persuasions, council in March 1887 passed by a substantial majority the motion to admit women to medicine.

In 1892 Sexton became the third woman to graduate M.B., B.S. in Melbourne. Penalized by the unwillingness of hospitals to appoint women, especially to honorary positions, the early graduates directed their efforts to establishing 'a hospital of our own'. Helen Sexton was one of the group of medical women who met under the leadership of Dr Constance Stone in September 1896 to found the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Children. It began as an out-patient clinic, but when it was officially opened in July 1899 it was a 'small airy hospital with eight beds and a well designed operating theatre'. Sexton was the leader of surgical work until she resigned in 1908, remaining on the honorary consultant staff as a gynaecologist.

In 1899 she became the first woman to hold an honorary position as surgeon in any other Melbourne hospital, with her election by subscribers to the position of honorary gynaecological surgeon at the Women's Hospital. Her ability won her acceptance and respect throughout Melbourne, and her early retirement due to ill health in 1910 prompted numerous expressions of regret and tributes from the medical world.

Sexton's medical career was not yet over. After touring Europe in 1912-14, she offered her services to the Australian authorities on the outbreak of World War I. She was refused, and instead joined several other women in starting a field hospital of twenty-five beds at Auteuil in France. Sexton was given the military rank of majeur in the French Army. She later worked at a hospital in Paris.

Sexton returned to Melbourne in 1917 and settled at Toorak, but in 1919, retiring finally from practice, she resumed her travels and eventually lived in Florence, Italy, where she was said to have done 'wonderful work among the poor'. In later life she suffered from arthritis and paralysis agitans. She died, unmarried, in London on 12 October 1950.

For some years a well-known figure in Melbourne, Sexton was noted for her tailor-made clothes, her 'dumpy hat' and 'flat, sensible shoes'. From her business investments and her medical cases she was said to have made 'a good pile', which enabled her to indulge her love of 'the hoary and the historical', of travel, and of art. In private, as in her career, she was said to be 'terribly serious about … life and duty, but she had a love of fun as well'. Melbourne Punch commended her bedside manner for its 'kindly brusquerie', and recognized, with some surprise, her 'broad sense of humour'. Above all she was noted for her great charm.

Select Bibliography

  • M. H. Neve, This Mad Folly (Syd, 1980)
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 July 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 July 1899
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 Mar 1909
  • P. A. Russell, Mothers of the Race: A Study of the First Thirty Women Medical Graduates from the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1982)
  • letters, Queen Victoria Hospital (Melbourne) collection
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Penny Russell, 'Sexton, Hannah Mary Helen (1862–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 11

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