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Phoebe Chapple (1879–1967)

by Joyce Gibberd

This article was published:

Phoebe Chapple, n.d

Phoebe Chapple, n.d

Australian War Memorial

Phoebe Chapple (1879-1967), medical practitioner, was born on 31 March 1879 in Adelaide, youngest daughter of Frederic Chapple and his wife Elizabeth Sarah, née Hunter. Educated at the Advanced School for Girls, she entered the University of Adelaide at 16 (B.Sc., 1898; M.B., B.S., 1904). In 1905 she was a house-surgeon at the Adelaide Hospital and later worked for a time at the Sydney Medical Mission. Until 1914 she practised from her father's school, Prince Alfred College, attending the boarders and travelling in a phaeton driven by a liveried coachman when visiting patients.

Dr Chapple, a feminist, was one of a handful of Australian medical women who served in World War I. The army refused to appoint female doctors, so she left Adelaide in February 1917 for England and became attached first to the Royal Army Medical Corps and later to Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps, although women were not accorded formal military status. Her first appointment was as surgeon at Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot. In November she went to France where she worked with the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps at Abbeville till August 1918 and also at Rouen and Le Havre. On the night of 29 May 1918 she was inspecting the women's camps when, because of intense bombing, she and forty women sheltered in trenches. A direct hit killed nine and injured several others. For 'gallantry and devotion to duty' on this occasion, Dr Chapple received the rare award for a woman of the Military Medal. Like most of her contemporaries, she tolerated military conservatism but was aware that women were '[squeezed] dry like an orange'.

She returned to Australia in 1919 and resumed practice, on North Terrace, until 1937. Supported by the Women's Non-Party Association, Dr Chapple was narrowly defeated in the 1919 Adelaide municipal elections. In 1921-22 she was honorary medical officer, night clinic (venereal diseases), for women patients at the Adelaide Hospital. For about thirty years from 1910 she was honorary doctor at the Salvation Army maternity hospital for unmarried mothers, first at Carrington Street, Adelaide, then at McBride Hospital, Medindie. 'She was a courageous and clever obstetrician … but was jealous of her authority'; although untiring in her work, she never involved herself in the adoption of patients' babies or their non-medical problems.

On the last of her six overseas trips, in 1937 she was the Australian delegate to the Medical Women's International Association conference in Edinburgh. She continued her practice from her home in Norwood until she was 85. She was known as 'Auntie Doc' by her large family whom she kept together and in touch. She was blunt, confident, dominating. A tall strong woman, for years she headed the nursing units marching each Anzac Day. She died unmarried on 24 March 1967 and was cremated with full military honours. Her estate was sworn for probate at $93,910; St Ann's College, University of Adelaide, received a bursary from it which is administered in her name.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (1909)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 6 Sept 1919
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 Oct 1937, 7 Jan 1955, 25 Mar, 6 Apr 1967
  • Adelaide Hospital, Annual Report, 1891-1922 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Women's Non-Party Assn minutes (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Joyce Gibberd, 'Chapple, Phoebe (1879–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 May 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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