Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Williams, Mary Boyd Burfitt (1882–1956)

by Rosslyn Finn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Mary Boyd Burfitt Williams (1882-1956), physician and pathologist, was born on 9 November 1882 at Redfern, Sydney, fifth child of native-born Charles Trimby Burfitt, auctioneer, and his Irish wife Annie, née Fitzmaurice. After a parish primary education, Mary was awarded a scholarship to St Mary's College, Rosebank. She followed her two elder brothers Walter and James to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1905; B.Sc., 1908; M.B., 1909; Ch.M., 1910), gaining Professor Haswell's prize for zoology and sharing the Renwick scholarship for general proficiency.

Graduating in 1909 with first-class honours, Burfitt was appointed resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where, with Elsie Dalyell, she succeeded Jessie Aspinall. When an attempt was made to curtail their treatment of males, the women called on Professor (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart who promised them his support. They found that those who opposed their professional advancement were not the male doctors, but members of the nursing staff and laywomen. Mary was the first woman to become senior resident at the hospital. Interested in pathology, in 1911 she presented at the Australasian Medical Congress one of the earliest accounts of blood culture from living patients.

That year Dr Burfitt applied for residency at the Women's Hospital, Crown Street, Surry Hills, to gain obstetric experience. Opposition to her application by the hospital secretary and some women on the hospital board led to the publication of several articles on the controversy in the Evening News. The other candidate withdrew because of Burfitt's superior academic record. Mary rented a room in an Albion Street terrace house adjacent to the hospital and arranged at her own expense for a telephone connexion between her bedroom and the hospital.

On completing her residency at Crown Street, Burfitt built up a large general practice at Glebe (1912-24), and served as honorary physician (1912-38) at Lewisham Hospital where she established the pathology department and served as honorary pathologist. On 19 January 1921 at St James's Catholic Church, Forest Lodge, she married Grosvenor John Williams who had graduated in medicine in 1916. She was a consulting physician in Macquarie Street in 1924-52.

A founder and councillor (1929-53) of Sancta Sophia College, University of Sydney, she was also president of the University Catholic Women's Association. Survived by her husband and by three sons who followed her into medical practice, she died on 30 November 1956 at Bellevue Hill and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 11 May 1957
  • private information.

Citation details

Rosslyn Finn, 'Williams, Mary Boyd Burfitt (1882–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-mary-boyd-burfitt-9115/text16075, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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