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Dame Kate Isabel Campbell (1899–1986)

by Janet McCalman

This article was published:

Dame Kate Isabel Campbell (1899-1986), paediatrician, was born on 22 April 1899 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, third of four children of Scottish-born Donald Campbell, clerk, and his New Zealand-born wife Janet Duncan, née Mill, a former schoolteacher. The family had limited means, and the first two sons left school early despite their parents’ reverence for education. Kate shone at Manningtree Road primary school and won a junior government scholarship that enabled her to attend the nearby Methodist Ladies’ College. In 1917, supported by a senior government scholarship, she proceeded to the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1922; MD, 1924) and graduated from its medical school with (Sir) Frank Macfarlane Burnet , (Dame) Jean Macnamara, Lucy Bryce, Rupert Willis and George Simpson.

Even as a student, Campbell demonstrated acute powers of clinical observation and sympathy with patients. Having graduated within the top twelve, she and Jean Macnamara were grudgingly admitted to residencies (1922-23) at the Melbourne Hospital, where women residents were habitually restricted to less interesting cases and excluded from casualty duty. Deciding on private general practice, she believed she needed more experience in child and maternal health. The Children’s Hospital, however, after taking women residents during World War I, was again claiming it lacked the facilities to accommodate female doctors. (Sir) William Upjohn pleaded the special cases of Campbell and Macnamara with the hospital’s board, and in later years would boast that his entry to heaven was assured by the fact that he `got Jean Macnamara and Kate Campbell on at the Children’s’. While holding the hand of a two-year-old girl at the hospital Campbell suddenly decided that she would specialise in children’s health.

Further discrimination in the allocation of responsibilities prompted Campbell to resign from the Children’s Hospital and accept a residency at the (Royal) Women’s Hospital in 1924. She began working closely with Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown, who was pioneering aspects of child welfare in Australia. Together, they studied for their doctorates of medicine and in 1927, when Dr Scantlebury Brown was touring New Zealand to investigate the infant care methods of Dr Truby King, Campbell took over the training of infant welfare nurses. Thus began a lifelong association with the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association, for which she was medical officer until 1965. She visited centres throughout Victoria, saw `all the difficult babies’, lectured to nurses, and acted as examiner for the State Infant Welfare certificate. With Scantlebury Brown she wrote A Guide to the Care of the Young Child (1947), which remained the standard textbook for infant welfare sisters through seven editions to 1972.

Campbell had been appointed (1926) honorary paediatrician to the Queen Victoria Hospital, where she began work on newborn babies, an appointment she was to hold until 1965, after which she became a consultant. In 1927 she established a general practice at Essendon, but a decade later she moved to specialist paediatrics in Collins Street, and into a familiar routine that saw her conducting her hospital visits in the small hours and many of her consultations in the evening. She was also honorary paediatrician at the Women’s from 1944 until 1960, when she was made consultant paediatrician. In 1929 she also began teaching neonatal paediatrics at the University of Melbourne (the first such appointment in Australia) after Professor Marshall Allan heard her lecture at an Australian Medical Association meeting. It was an inspired appointment: until 1965 she trained generations of doctors in the intricate medicine of the newborn and their `vocabulary’, imitating their squeaks, snuffles and grimaces—all of which told her what the baby was feeling.

Through her private practice, her consultancies and her inimitable teaching, Campbell established an outstanding reputation as a diagnostician. She was remembered for spending hours late at night simply observing babies in special care wards. She developed her own tests for the reflexes and neurological function of the newborn long before such procedures were discovered by others and disseminated in the literature, and she chatted away to pre-term babies as fascinating fellow human beings. She was a pioneer of neonatal intensive care, and was respected by nursing staff for being one of the few senior doctors to treat nurses in special care wards as colleagues.

Campbell’s unusual blend of clinical sensitivity, epidemiological curiosity and meticulousness translated into pioneering work on neonatal intensive care and a range of significant advances in the medicine of the newborn. This research led to major papers on infection control, neonatal feeding, jaundice in the premature infant, electrolyte and fluid tolerance in the newborn, and the effects of trauma in delivery. She also collaborated with medical scientists, in particular with Lucy Bryce and Rachel Jakobowicz of the Melbourne Red Cross Blood Bank, into Rh incompatibility of mother and child, the treatment of consequent haemolytic disease of the newborn and the development of exchange blood transfusion. Her most outstanding contribution in research was in establishing that excess therapeutic oxygen lay behind acquired retrolental fibroplasia —a condition that could lead to blindness among premature babies. For this work, she shared (with Sir Norman Gregg the inaugural Britannica-Australia award for medicine in 1964. By the end of her career she was publishing on sudden infant death syndrome. She was an honorary fellow (1961) of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the first woman president (1965-66) of the Australian Paediatric Association.

While irritating some colleagues with her intuitive gift of diagnosis and her tenacity in debate, Campbell was revered by most for her wisdom, diffidence, courtesy and sense of fun. She derived enormous pleasure from the human comedy, especially at the rougher end of public medicine. She was of a generation of women doctors who dressed impeccably and was rarely seen without a hat. She brought both diagnostic brilliance and clinical rigour to neonatal medicine in Australia, but also championed the virtues of maternal bonding and humane flexibility in an era beset by fads and lingering puritanism.

Campbell’s singularity of character bordered on the eccentric. She never married and for 37 years her private life was well organised by Winifred Crick, a devoted housekeeper-companion. Appointed OBE in 1954, she was raised to DBE in 1971. The University of Melbourne conferred on her an honorary doctorate of laws in 1966. She was a member of the Lyceum Club. Dame Kate retired in 1976 and died on 12 July 1986 at Camberwell and was cremated. Her youngest brother, Donald Campbell, QC, was a distinguished and witty barrister who defended Frank Hardy in the Power without Glory trial.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Grimshaw and L. Strahan (eds), The Half-Open Door (1982)
  • Australian Paediatric Journal, vol 10, no 2, 1974, p 48
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2 Feb 1987, p 161
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1964, p 13, 11 Feb 1976, p 23
  • Canberra Times, 27 Jan 1965, p 23.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'Campbell, Dame Kate Isabel (1899–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kate Campbell, 1969

Kate Campbell, 1969

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L49534

Life Summary [details]


22 April, 1899
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 July, 1986 (aged 87)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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