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Agnes Elizabeth Bennett (1872–1960)

by Ann Curthoys

This article was published:

Agnes Bennett, Fairfax Corporation, c.1929

Agnes Bennett, Fairfax Corporation, c.1929

National Library of Australia, 51893820

Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd Bennett (1872-1960), medical practitioner, was born on 24 June 1872 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, sixth child of W. C. Bennett, and his first wife Agnes Amelia, née Hays. Educated in England at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Dulwich Girls' High School until her mother's death in 1881, she attended Abbotsleigh girls' school in Sydney from July 1885, then the Girls' High School, Sydney, in 1888-89. She won a scholarship in 1890 and studied science at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1894); she was secretary of and a night-school teacher for the Women's Association (later University Women's Settlement).

Finding that female scientists were unwanted, Agnes Bennett worked as a teacher and governess, then left Australia in 1895 to study at the College of Medicine for Women, University of Edinburgh (M.B., Ch.M., 1899). She returned to Sydney in 1901 and set up in private practice in Darlinghurst Road. She soon became a committee-member of the (Church of England) District Nursing Association and gave free medical assistance. Prejudice against female doctors forced her to relinquish her practice, and accept a position on 1 December 1904 as junior medical officer at the Hospital for the Insane, Callan Park. Dissatisfied, in July 1905 she took over the practice of a woman doctor in Wellington, New Zealand, and this time prospered. An outstanding practitioner, she was chief medical officer in 1908-36 at St Helen's maternity hospital, and honorary physician to the children's ward of Wellington Hospital from 1910. In 1911 she completed her M.D. at Edinburgh. She was a consistent defender of women's right to higher education; in 1909 and 1914 she publicly opposed Drs Batchelor and Truby King, who saw higher education as detrimental to women's maternal functions and hence to the human race.

In 1915 Agnes Bennett became the first female commissioned officer in the British Army, when as a captain she worked as a medical officer in war hospitals in Cairo. In 1916-17 she was in charge of a unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals on the Serbian front. She became the first president of the Wellington branch of the International Federation of University Women in 1923, and represented New Zealand at its world conference at Cracow, Poland, in 1936. She had visited Australia often since 1905, and in 1938-39 was medical officer at the hospital, staffed by flying doctors, at Burketown, North Queensland. She returned to Wellington and in 1939 helped to form the Women's War Service Auxiliary. Between 1940 and 1942 she worked in English hospitals and, on returning to New Zealand, lectured to the women's services on venereal disease and birth control.

Dr Bennett was appointed O.B.E. in 1948; she died in Wellington on 27 November 1960 and was cremated with Presbyterian rites. She had contributed largely to the improvement of maternal and infant medical care in New Zealand, and through example, argument and organization did much to advance women's status. In 1955 and 1956 she had given £10,000 for aeronautical research to the University of Sydney, which inherited the residue of her estate, valued for probate in New South Wales at £26,490.

Her portrait by Charles Hopkinson is held by the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women.

Select Bibliography

  • C. and C. Bennett, Doctor Agnes Bennett (Lond, 1960), and for bibliography
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Dec 1917, 20 May 1939, 12 Dec 1954, 10 Apr 1956, 7 Aug, 2 Dec 1960
  • W. C. Bennett papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ann Curthoys, 'Bennett, Agnes Elizabeth (1872–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 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

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