Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Emma Jane Callaghan (1884–1979)

by Shay Ann Kelly

This article was published:

Emma Jane Callaghan (1884-1979), Aboriginal nurse and midwife, was born on 28 February 1884 at La Perouse Aborigines' Reserve, Sydney, the younger of twins of William Foot, fisherman, and Kathleen Sims of the Dharawal tribe. One of Kathleen's fourteen children, Emma regarded John Foster as her father. At the age of 4 she injured her head and was tended by Retta Dixon who was to found the Aborigines' Inland Mission of Australia. Although Emma left school after third grade, she wanted to be a nurse. About 1903 Dixon took her to visit the Dunggutti people at the Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve, Bellbrook.

Unlike her mother, Emma had fair skin, blue eyes and red hair. She believed that she had a mission among her people. Returning to Bellbrook about 1905, she attended Sunday services and learned to play the organ; she also helped older Aboriginal women when they assisted in childbirth, earning their trust and respect. From that time she registered Aboriginal births. In addition, she regularly searched the camps and humpies for sick people, crossing flooded creeks and riding through the bush to tend her patients: Aborigines were not admitted to Kempsey hospital until an annexe was built in the 1930s. Emma held religious services for the Dungguttis in the open air under trees or in the small, crudely-built, tin church on the reserve. With the police as witnesses, she buried the dead.

On 20 September 1909 at Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve Emma married with the forms of the Australian Aborigines' Mission Athol Callaghan, a 22-year-old labourer and a Dunggutti of mixed descent; they were to have eleven children. A competent needlewoman, she made her own hats, as well as clothes for herself, the family and the community (even wedding dresses and ball gowns). During the childhood of her eldest son Harry, she began to learn the intricacies of the tribal language and translated Bible stories into Dunggutti.

About 1928 Mrs Callaghan moved to Armidale to be closer to medical facilities for her husband who was suffering from tuberculosis. Finding that Aborigines were living in appalling conditions on the fringes of the town, she lobbied the mayor and the Anglican bishop until her family obtained a house. Her home soon became an impromptu hospital; she practised as midwife to her people and nursed them without charge. Dr Ellen Kent Hughes visited the Callaghans' home to see patients and any local Aboriginal family in need of treatment. Highly respected among the White community, Emma encountered no personal prejudice.

At Athol's request, the family returned to La Perouse after seven years at Armidale. Through the Homes for Unemployed Trust, in 1939 Emma bought a block of land near the mission, and a timber-and-fibro house was built to plans provided by her friend Kent Hughes. The house became a meeting-place where Sunday School was held, people were married, and children were born and baptized; on Wednesday nights a minister held church services. Emma ran the nearby 'sick bay' and was affectionately known throughout the reserve as 'Lady'.

She worked for the Aborigines' Protection Board, battled for the dole for Aborigines and spoke out for civil rights. Athol died in 1942. At the district registrar's office, Redfern, on 18 October 1945 Emma married a widower Henry James Cook, a Royal Navy veteran who worked as a commissionaire. Following his death in 1964, she became active in the War Widows' Guild and in October that year was presented to Princess Marina, the dowager Duchess of Kent. Survived by five daughters of her first marriage, Emma died on 31 December 1979 at Randwick and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Botany cemetery. In 1985 her home was preserved by the State government.

Select Bibliography

  • La Perouse, the Place, the People, and the Sea (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 24 Apr 1968
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Nov 1985
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Shay Ann Kelly, 'Callaghan, Emma Jane (1884–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Foot, Emma
  • Cook, Emma

28 February, 1884
La Perouse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


31 December, 1979 (aged 95)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.