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Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne (1878–1957)

by Jacqueline Bell

This article was published:

Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne (1878-1957), medical practitioner, was born at South Brisbane on 4 December 1878, eldest child of John Sumner Pears Bourne, clerk in the Land Commission Court, and his wife Jane Elizabeth, née Hockings. She was educated at the Brisbane Central School for Girls, the Leichhardt Street State School and the Brisbane Grammar School, whose trustees awarded her an extension scholarship; she passed the 1896 senior examination with distinction, winning the Grahame and the John West gold medals. The government exhibition awarded to her late that year to the University of Sydney was the first to a woman; she thus became the first Queensland woman to study medicine. Despite a severe attack of typhoid fever during the course, she won honour passes in four of the annual examinations and graduated as bachelor of medicine and master of surgery on 6 July 1903.

In 1903-07 Dr Bourne was resident medical officer at the Women's Hospital, Sydney, at the Brisbane General Hospital, where she was the first woman resident, and at the Hospital for Sick Children, Brisbane. In 1907 she entered general practice at 69 Wickham Terrace, serving as honorary out-patient physician to the children's hospital and as an anaesthetist. Appointed the first medical officer in the Department of Public Instruction on 1 January 1911, she had to establish principles for the medical examination of children and the conditions under which they studied; she also briefed teachers and laid down the procedure for notifying parents of marked physical defects. She saw medical inspection as 'likely to do its work, more by relieving slight defects in a large number of children than by making a few improvements in marked and startling conditions'. In 1910-11 she visited Charleville, Cunnamulla, Thargomindah, Augathella, Eulo, Blackall, Longreach and Barcaldine, while in 1912 she worked in North Queensland, particularly in the Cairns and Mackay districts. The results of her research on hookworm disease, published in the annual school medical report, were used in the Rockefeller-financed hookworm survey of North Queensland after World War I; she also reported on ophthalmia in the western area. At the request of J. D. Story, under-secretary for public instruction, she prepared a brochure on diet which was distributed to parents of all schoolchildren.

Disagreements with the department and her heavy work-load reinforced her desire for war service and, though dedicated to child health, she applied for leave in January 1916. She went to England at her own expense and served as a lieutenant of the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Endell Street military hospital, London, staffed entirely by women. Promoted major in 1917, she became medical officer to Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps.

Awarded a Diploma of Public Health in 1920 by the Royal College of Physicians and of Surgeons, Dr Bourne was appointed assistant medical officer to the city of Carlisle, responsible for organizing child welfare services and for the new maternity hospital and associated maternal welfare services. In 1928 she applied for and was offered a position as Commonwealth director of maternal hygiene and children's welfare in Australia; but after discovering that the conditions were unsatisfactory, she withdrew her application. Forced to resign by ill health in June 1937, she left Carlisle and retired to Manly near Brisbane.

After fifty years membership of the Queensland branch of the British Medical Association, Dr Bourne was made an honorary life member in 1953. She was also interested in the Queensland Medical Society and was the first honorary medical officer to the Crèche and Kindergarten Association. Her family had supported the Women's College within the University of Queensland from its foundation in 1914 and the Bourne wing was named in their honour. She was a life vice-president of the college standing committee and donated £1000 shortly before she died. She was also prominent in other cultural activities.

Dr Bourne was an unusually confident and self-reliant woman within Australian society up to the outbreak of World War II. She was also noted for her excellent relations with hospital staff and patients. She died unmarried in Nundah Private Hospital on 23 May 1957 and was buried in South Brisbane cemetery with Anglican rites; her estate was sworn for probate at £11,040. A sister, Florence Ida Bourne, retired in 1948 after thirty-one years as principal of the Maryborough Girls' High School; a brother, George Herbert, had a distinguished record in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • E. S. Morgan, A Short History of Medical Women in Australia (Adel, 1970)
  • Brisbane Girls' Grammar School Magazine, Dec 1957
  • Queensland Women's Historical Society, News Sheet, no 46, 1957
  • Bourne papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • G. H. Bourne correspondence (Royal Historical Society of Queensland)
  • Education Dept files, A/15844-45, A/15971, EDU/BC89 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Jacqueline Bell, 'Bourne, Eleanor Elizabeth (1878–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 13 July 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

Eleanor Bourne, n.d.

Eleanor Bourne, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 184655

Life Summary [details]


4 December, 1878
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


23 May, 1957 (aged 78)
Nundah, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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.