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Phyllis Dorothy Cilento (1894–1987)

by Mary D. Mahoney

This article was published:

Phyllis Dorothy Cilento (1894-1987), medical practitioner and journalist, was born on 13 March 1894 at Rockdale, Sydney, only child of New South Wales-born parents Charles Thomas McGlew, shipbroker and coal merchant, and his wife Alice Lane, née Walker. The family moved to Adelaide when Phyllis was a small child. She attended Tormore House school and studied medicine at the University of Adelaide (MB, BS, 1918), where she played hockey and tennis, captaining the women’s tennis team for three years and winning a Blue. In 1918 she became engaged to (Sir) Raphael (`Ray’) Cilento, a fellow medical student. After graduating she worked as a house surgeon at the Adelaide Hospital.

In 1919 Dr McGlew accompanied her mother to Britain to be reunited with her father, who had served in France in World War I. Her parents separated soon after and she determined never to be economically dependent on her future husband. To further her education she enlisted as a clinical clerk at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, where she first became interested in nutrition. She also attended the Marylebone Medical Mission Dispensary. Back in Adelaide, she married Cilento on 18 March 1920 at St Columba’s Church of England, Hawthorn, and they briefly set up in general practice together at Tranmere.

In October that year the Cilentos sailed for Perak, Federated Malay States. While Raphael worked as a physician to the sultanate, Phyllis obtained a post as `lady medical officer’ in the British colonial service and took charge of a women’s ward in a hospital at Teluk Anson (Teluk Intan). In February 1921 the first of her six children was born. In December she returned to Australia and next year, while her husband was studying in England, undertook a course in public health at the University of Sydney. Late in 1922 she joined him at Townsville, Queensland, and next year, shortly after the birth of their second child, they moved to Rabaul, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, where she worked (1924-27) in private practice.

The Cilento family settled in Brisbane in 1928. At the Hospital for Sick Children she was physician to out-patients (1931-33), and to inpatients (1935-38). She had a remarkable affinity with both mothers and children. For thirty-six years (apart from a year in Canberra in 1934 and three years in New York in 194850), Cilento was a general practitioner, with an active obstetric practice. Her surgery was attached to her Annerley home, allowing her to supervise her growing family. In 1939-46 and 1952-62 she was specialist lecturer in mothercraft at the University of Queensland. She sold her practice in 1964. Moving to Toowong in 1967, she continued to see patients until the early 1980s.

Throughout her career Lady Cilento (her husband was knighted in 1935) undertook advanced training in Australia, Britain, the United States of America and New Zealand, including a short course with Grantly Dick Read, a proponent of natural childbirth. In 1928 she had started contributing articles on mothercraft to Woman’s Budget, and soon after began writing a weekly column under the nom de plume `Mother M. D.’ for the Brisbane Daily Mail, and from 1933 for the Courier-Mail. From 1950 her pseudonym was `Medical Mother’. Later she wrote for Woman’s Day and other magazines. She dealt with nutrition, the health of mothers and children, and all aspects of child care. In her writing she demonstrated her own remarkable facility to communicate complex medical facts to ordinary readers. Women came to quote her as a national oracle. As `Mother M. D.’, she conducted regular radio sessions for many years. She published her first book, Square Meals for the Family, in 1933; in all she wrote twenty-four books and monographs, including The Cilento Way (1984). In later years she controversially promoted the use of large doses of vitamins for good health. She wrote her last newspaper column in 1984. Her final work was an autobiography, Lady Cilento M.B. B.S.: My Life (1987).

Lady Cilento was involved in a wide range of medical and community organisations. She was inaugural president (1929) of the Queensland Medical Women’s Society. In 1931 she founded the Mothercraft Association of Queensland, serving as president until 1946; she considered that the association was her `greatest contribution to social welfare in Queensland’. Active for some years in the National Council of Women of Queensland, she was also president of the local branch of the Business and Professional Women’s Association (1948) and of the Lyceum Club (1951-52). She was a member of the inaugural council of the Family Planning Association of Queensland, and also a member of the Crèche & Kindergarten Association of Queensland.

Some members of the mainstream medical profession disapproved of Lady Cilento’s ideas, seeing them as alternative and unorthodox. Others, however, saw her as a woman ahead of her time. She stated in 1987 that much she had fought for, `like natural childbirth, family planning, and permitting fathers to be present at the birth of their children’, was now accepted. In 1971 the Brisbane City Mission publicly recognised her work with a citation signed by the premier and representatives of many churches and social organisations. She said later that it was the honour that she prized `more than any other’. In 1974 she was selected as first Queensland Mother of the Year. In 1977 an award established by the Nutritional Foods Association of Australia and a resource centre for parents in Brisbane were named after her. She was elected (1978) a fellow of the International Academy of Preventive Medicine and a life member (1980) of the Australian Medical Association. First Queenslander of the Year (1981) and Queensland Senior Citizen of the Year (1987), she was awarded a medal of merit by the Australian chapter of the Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth, and was named (1982) Loyal Australian of the Year by the Assembly of Captive European Nations.

Widely known as `Lady C.’, Phyllis Cilento was 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, with smooth, olive skin, brown eyes and a direct gaze. She had a strong presence, an outgoing, warm and friendly personality, an immense enthusiasm for life, her work and her family, and a lively sense of humour. In her autobiography she described her children as `Ray’s and my greatest achievement’: four became doctors, one a noted artist, and her youngest daughter, Diane, an actor. Her husband died in 1985 after an enduring, although sometimes turbulent, partnership of sixty-five years. Survived by her children, she died on 26 July 1987 in Brisbane and was buried in Albany Creek cemetery. Several portraits were painted of her, including one by John Rigby (1973) which is held by the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Pearn, Focus and Innovation (1986)
  • A. Mackinnon, The New Women (1986)
  • F. G. Fisher, Raphael Cilento (1994)
  • M. Mahoney & D. Gordon, `Obituary: Phyllis Dorothy Cilento’, Medical Journal of Australia, 18 Apr 1988, p 415
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 15 Mar 1987, p 12
  • Australian, 27 July 1987, p 2
  • Cilento papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information.

Citation details

Mary D. Mahoney, 'Cilento, Phyllis Dorothy (1894–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 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

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