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Casely, Elma Gertrude (1904–1995)

by Ruth Grant

This article was published:

Elma Gertrude Casely (1904–1995), physiotherapist, was born on 28 October 1904 at Petersburg (Peterborough), South Australia, youngest of three daughters of Tasmanian-born William Arthur Linthorne Casely, draper, and his South Australian-born wife Adeline Mary, née Trudgen. Elma was educated at the Methodist Ladies’ College, Adelaide, where she was a school prefect and captain of its first hockey and tennis teams. In 1923 she began studies towards the diploma of the South Australian branch of the Australasian Massage Association (SAAMA). Trained at the Adelaide Hospital and University of Adelaide, she was active in the Student Christian Federation and played hockey for the university and in State representative teams. She completed the academic requirements of the course in 1924 but her youth prevented the granting of the diploma until 1926.

After working in private practice, Casely travelled to London in 1928 to undertake the teaching certificate of the Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics (later the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy). On her return to Adelaide in 1930, she was the first physiotherapist in Australia to hold this qualification. She helped to pioneer the use of graduated exercise for heart patients and led the way in establishing classes for postnatal women. While the SAAMA engaged her as lecturer in Swedish remedial exercises, it proved to be ‘a very part time appointment’ (Ganne c. 1996, 1:29). Her colleague Renée Swan later reflected that the ‘minimal use of her services’ by the branch was ‘hard to comprehend’ (Ganne c. 1996, 1:29).

In 1940 the University of Queensland appointed Casely as senior demonstrator and specialist lecturer, to establish the final clinical year of its new diploma in physiotherapy. She oversaw its implementation before returning to Adelaide two years later. By 1944 she was a part-time instructor in physical education at the University of Adelaide. In late 1945, when the university took over running the diploma in physiotherapy, she was appointed lecturer-in-charge (senior lecturer from 1961). The accommodation provided was primitive—a desk in a passageway was her office for ten years. Modest funds allocated for clinical teaching were directed elsewhere, and overall, her relationship with the university was not an easy one. Nonetheless, she established a course of high standing that was enhanced by her reputation as a trained teacher. Its graduates became the first in Australia to enjoy full reciprocity with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy in Britain. She was to head the department until her retirement in 1964, training over 250 physiotherapists, 150 of whom attended her farewell.

Casely was a leader in the profession. The inaugural national physiotherapy congress, held in Adelaide in 1936, was a direct result of her vision and determination. She was the inaugural (1958) president of the Physiotherapy Society of South Australia (precursor to the Australian College of Physiotherapists), established to encourage research. In 1965 she was appointed MBE and the next year she was one of three physiotherapists selected as consultant editors to the Australian Journal of Physiotherapy. Her knowledge, wisdom, generosity, encouragement, and delightful sense of humour endeared her to, and inspired, many of those who worked with her. In 1981 former students and colleagues established an academic prize in her name at the South Australian Institute of Technology. In 1984 she was made an honoured member of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

Marie Hammond, who succeeded Casely as head of the physiotherapy department, recalled that while ‘[d]eafness overtook her in her twenties’ (1995) Elma did not let it become a barrier to effective communication with her patients, students, and friends. She remained ‘young at heart and optimistic,’ and maintained an active concern ‘for the lonely, the neglected, and the rejected’ (Hammond 1995) that reflected her deep Christian faith. She never married and for most of her adult years lived with her unmarried sisters. They too were active in community and charitable organisations. Gladys, a former headmistress (1950–53) of the Girls’ Central Art School, worked with the Prisoners’ Aid Association of South Australia; and Edith was secretary of the League of Women Voters of South Australia and of the South Australian Council of Social Service. Predeceased by them, Elma died in Adelaide on 30 March 1995 and was buried in Mitcham General Cemetery. Her portrait, painted by Robert Hannaford in 1977, is held by the Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at the University of South Australia.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bentley, Philip, and David Dunstan. The Path to Professionalism: Physiotherapy in Australia to the 1980s. Victoria: Australian Physiotherapy Association, 2006
  • Casely, Elma. ‘Physiotherapy in South Australia.’ Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 1, no. 4 (1955): 165
  • Casely, Elma. Taped interview by Renee Swan, 13 November 1985, Oral History Project, History Cabinet, South Australian branch, Australian Physiotherapy Association, Adelaide
  • Ganne, Jeanne-Marie. ‘History of the Physiotherapy Profession in South Australia.’ Parts 1, 11, VIII, and XI. Unpublished manuscript, 1992–93. South Australian branch, Australian Physiotherapy Association, Adelaide
  • Ganne, Jeanne-Marie. ‘History of the School of Physiotherapy, South Australia.’ 4 vols. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1996. South Australian branch, Australian Physiotherapy Association, Adelaide
  • Hammond, Marie. ‘Tribute to Elma Gertrude Casely.’ Eulogy given at Casely’s funeral. Unpublished manuscript, 3 April 1995. Copy held on ADB file
  • Hammond, Marie, Jeanne-Marie Ganne, and Alison Kinsman. ‘Physiotherapist Devoted to Community.’ Australian, 10 May 1995, 14
  • Hill, Dorothy. ‘Physiotherapy as a University Subject in Queensland.’ Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 20, no. 3 (September 1974): 119–28
  • Phillips, Zoe. ‘The Development of the Physiotherapy Association in South Australia.’ Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 1, no. 1 (1954): 39–40

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ruth Grant, 'Casely, Elma Gertrude (1904–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 19 August 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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