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Isabelle Bean (1862–1939)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Isabelle Bean (1862-1939), nurse, theosophist and feminist, was born in 1862 at Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, daughter of William John Gater, ironmonger, and his wife Elizabeth, née Knight, daughter of an Anglican clergyman. Reared in an atmosphere of religious liberalism, she trained as a nurse for nine months at Salisbury Infirmary in the early 1880s until illness led her to migrate to Australia. On 5 February 1886 in a registry office at Redfern, Sydney, she married Erik Gustaf Edelfelt, who claimed to be the son of an aristocratic Swedish Army captain. Edelfelt, who had some scientific training, had gone to New Guinea in 1884 as a collector of natural history specimens, and returned there in 1886 as an agent for Burns Philp Ltd at Motu Motu near Port Moresby. Armed with her own revolver, Isabelle sometimes accompanied him on his frequent journeys and was described in an official report as 'an enterprizing and courageous lady'. In 1888 Edelfelt was employed as government agent at Samarai, where a relatively comfortable residency enabled her to entertain all kinds of visitors.

Sir William MacGregor did not re-employ Edelfelt and, soon afterwards, the couple left New Guinea to settle in Rockhampton, Queensland, where he practised as a dentist. While he went to Sweden in 1894 Isabelle undertook further training as a nurse at the Women's Hospital in Melbourne. On his return he practised for a time in Brisbane until driven by tuberculosis to the drier climate of Freestone Creek on the Darling Downs, where he died on 1 February 1895.

Isabelle then became a sought-after obstetric nurse. Partly inspired by Edelfelt's psychic interests, she joined the infant Theosophical Society and met William George John, a Brisbane insurance accountant. When he moved to Sydney in 1901 to become general secretary of the Australian Theosophical Society, she married him on 23 November in a private home at Ashfield, with Presbyterian rites. As virtual assistant general secretary of the society, Mrs John ran classes in theosophical theory and practice and spoke regularly at Sunday meetings in the Sydney Domain. She still found time for social work round the city wine-bars and for house-to-house canvassing on issues such as raising the age of consent. Her robust common sense and gift for practical exposition were valuable assets to any cause. In 1908 she toured the Commonwealth with Mrs Annie Besant, as secretary and general factotum, during a national lecture tour.

John died in 1917 and on 2 March 1922 Isabelle was married to his successor Dr John Willoughby Butler Bean in the Liberal Catholic Church of St Alban, Regent Street, Sydney, by Charles Leadbeater; Charles Bean, the bridegroom's brother, was witness. Isabelle continued her work for the society as secretary to special ventures like the Order of the Round Table and Krishnamurti's Order of the Star of the East.

When Bean resigned from the society in 1924, they spent six months in Tasmania; then after several locums he set up a practice in Roseville, New South Wales. In 1927-32 he was a medical officer in the Queensland Department of Public Instruction, then practised privately in Queen Street, Brisbane. Mrs Bean continued her public life as a vice-president for many years of the Women's Non-Party Association, a body devoted to developing social welfare through political pressure, and as a delegate for the theosophical Order of Service to the National Council of Women. She died of hypertensive cerebro-vascular disease at her South Brisbane home on 14 May 1939, and was cremated with the rites of the Theosophical Society.

Although she claimed to have seen visions, Mrs Bean was essentially a practical person. Her favourite aphorism was: 'If each one would sweep his own doorstep, then the village would soon be clean'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Lindt, Picturesque New Guinea (Lond, 1887)
  • A. Wichmann, Nova Guinea, vol 2 (Leiden, 1910) part 2
  • A. R. Nethercot, The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago, 1963)
  • British New Guinea Annual Reports, 1887
  • Theosophy in Australia, Aug, Sept 1939
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 16 May 1939
  • J. P. Thompson letter book (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Bean, Isabelle (1862–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gater, Isabelle
  • John, Isabelle
  • Edelfelt, Isabelle

Salisbury, Wiltshire, England


14 May, 1939 (aged ~ 77)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.