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Lilian Helen Alexander (1861–1934)

by Farley Kelly

This article was published:

Lilian Alexander, 1887

Lilian Alexander, 1887

Lilian Helen Alexander (1861–1934), medical practitioner, was born on 15 March 1861 at St Kilda, Melbourne, second daughter of Thomas Alexander, an English-born printer and bookseller, later a public servant, and his Irish-born wife Jane, née Furnell. From the 1870s to the mid-1890s her mother ran a small, private 'ladies' college', Lawn House, latterly in Murphy Street, South Yarra. Lilian, who remained single, was to live in this street all her life. Educated at Lawn House and at Presbyterian Ladies' College for a matriculation honours year, in 1883 she entered the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1886; M.A., 1888) as one of a tiny group of women enrolled in arts. Alexander Leeper accepted her as the first female student at Trinity College 'against considerable opposition'; more women followed. In 1888 she proposed an 'autonomous, non-denominational and state-funded' women's college, but the hostel, now named Janet Clarke Hall, developed on Leeper's model. After graduating, Lilian taught at Ruyton Girls' School.

Through her maternal uncle, surgeon-general in Madras, India, Alexander had a medical connexion. In January 1887 she and Helen Sexton wrote a letter to the Age asking women who were interested in studying medicine at the University of Melbourne to contact them. This was audacious: an assault on those who believed women would be 'unsexed' by medical knowledge and a challenge to the profession. Five women replied, and the university council decided to admit them. Alexander took out her M.B. in 1893 and her B.Ch. in 1901. She was inaugural secretary of the Victorian Women's Medical Association in 1895, and later its president. Her first appointment was at the Women's Hospital in Carlton, but she was soon involved with other recent female graduates in a new venture: a hospital for women run by women doctors, for which a small clinic had previously demonstrated a real demand. A statewide 'shilling fund' to mark the monarch's diamond jubilee in 1897 raised sufficient money to establish the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and Children. Alexander was one of the original staff members. Despite her late start she specialized in surgery.

When her sister Constance Cudmore's four sons were orphaned in 1913, they made a home with their aunt. In 1917 she visited her nephews, then serving overseas in World War I. After the war she resigned from the honorary medical staff of the 'Queen Vic', but retained the title of honorary consultant. In 1921 the Bulletin described her as a 'magnificent, silver-haired presence' at V.W.M.A. meetings. She was listed as practising privately until 1928.

Alexander died on 18 October 1934 at South Yarra and was buried in the new Melbourne general cemetery at Fawkner. Her estate, sworn for probate at £5891, was divided among her three surviving nephews. In 1936 they honoured her memory with the gift to the University of Melbourne of a substantial sculpture, 'The Wheel of Life', by C. Web Gilbert.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • M. Theobald, Ruyton Remembers 1878-1978 (Melb, 1978)
  • M. Hutton Neve, ‘This Mad Folly!’ (Syd, 1980)
  • F. Kelly, Degrees of Liberation (Melb, 1985)
  • L. Gardiner, Janet Clarke Hall 1886-1986 (Melb, 1986)
  • M. Theobald, Knowing Women (Melb, 1996)
  • Home Beautiful (Sydney), 1 Feb 1936
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1934, 6 Apr 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Oct 1934
  • F. Kelly, The ‘Woman Question’ in Melbourne (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1983)
  • Southern Health, MMC History Collection (University of Melbourne Archives).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Farley Kelly, 'Alexander, Lilian Helen (1861–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Lilian Alexander, 1887

Lilian Alexander, 1887

Life Summary [details]


15 March, 1861
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


18 October, 1934 (aged 73)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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