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Harriet Jemima Clisby (1830–1931)

by Kathleen Thomson

This article was published:

Harriet Jemima Winifred Clisby (1830-1931), physician and feminist, was born on 31 August 1830 in St James's, London, 'very near the Palace', daughter of George Clisby, corn merchant. Her father tired of business and, as a salesman, secured free passages for himself, his wife and three children, and arrived at South Australia in the Rajasthan in November 1838. Ninety years later in her first press interview she recalled vivid memories of the five months adventurous voyage, and of the new town of Adelaide, then only a collection of huts and tents. Her father acquired land in King William Street but after three years took his family by bullock dray to the Inman valley. Carpenters went ahead and built 'a shanty of eucalyptus bark', open at one end for light and air. There they did a little farming, and Harriet tended the animals, went possum hunting, and, in her own words, 'brought herself up'. About 1845 the family returned to Adelaide, where it was hoped Harriet 'would become a lady'. In 1847 with her father and two sisters she was baptized at the New Church (Swedenborgian). She married Henry Edward Walker at Trinity Church, Adelaide, on 25 February 1848. With growing independence her thoughts turned to journalism and she learnt shorthand.

About 1856 Harriet went to Melbourne, where she edited the Southern Phonographic Harmonia, a magazine in shorthand 'edited by a lady' and printed in Melbourne from June 1857. Earlier manuscript numbers circulated 'among those who delight in Pitman's cabalistic symbols'. In print the magazine was said to continue to improve: 'its tiny pages are neatly and well filled'. Its English news was sent out by Sir Isaac Pitman. About this time Harriet, with a growing concern for social betterment, conducted a community home for the rescue of women prisoners. She collaborated with Caroline Dexter, née Harper, in January and February 1861 in publishing the two numbers of the Interpreter, a monthly magazine of literature, science and art. It was the first magazine published by women in Australia, and included a medical page 'with practical information … as to the prevention of disease and hints for its cure'. This page seemed to indicate the Clisby influence, for she had lately read The Laws of Life, with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls (New York, 1852; London, 1859), by Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman doctor admitted to practise in England. Stirred by a new sense of vocation, Harriet had consulted a medical friend on her suitability for this profession; he warned her of hardships but had enough faith in her qualities to tutor her in physiology and anatomy for two years.

Soon afterwards Harriet decided to pursue her chosen profession in England. There she met Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who advised against trying to break down the barrier against women in English universities and suggested training in America. But Harriet had no funds, for the money she had left in Australia to be sent to her monthly ceased after one remittance. Her first earnings, six guineas, were for a lecture at Bristol. Through an introduction to the head surgeon she became a private nurse at Guy's Hospital, London. When her savings were augmented by a gift from a Spiritualist friend she went to New York and entered the Medical College and Hospital for Women founded by Dr Clemence Sophia Lozier, a homoeopathic physician and feminist.

In 1865 Harriet gained a medical diploma, and about 1871 went to Boston where she practised her profession, lectured on hygiene, and founded the Women's Educational and Industrial Union. This aimed to do for women what the Young Men's Christian Association was doing for men, and stemmed from her Sunday meetings for women held during the 1870s. The union was incorporated in 1880 with Dr Clisby as its first president but she resigned in June for health reasons and spent some time in Europe. On her return she was vice-president in 1882-89 and member of various committees, including one for undenominational spiritual and moral development. On retirement from regular practice she settled in Geneva and there founded L'Union des Femmes. She remained physically and mentally active, keeping abreast of modern movements and giving drawing-room lectures on spiritual and medical subjects until a few years before her death in London on 30 April 1931.

For most of her life she adhered to a vegetarian diet and practised gymnastics. At the celebration of her hundredth birthday, the Swedenborgian minister, Charles A. Hall, testified that her life had been dominated by a desire to serve, especially in the cause of women's freedom and advancement. Deeply religious, she believed that she had been called to her profession, and her strong personality overcame all difficulties. She was confident of a great future for women doctors because of their common sense and sympathy, but thought they would prove better as specialists. Among her American friends she remembered especially Professor James, Longfellow and Henry Ward Beecher. Though her calling took her far afield, she counted her time in Australia among her happiest years: 'I love Australia, I always have loved it'.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Darbyshire (Meynell), Henrietta Condon, M.D. (Lond, 1936)
  • Sunday Times (London), 7 Oct 1928
  • Register (Adelaide), 16 Nov, 4 Dec 1928, 18 Oct 1930
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Nov 1928
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 Oct 1930.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kathleen Thomson, 'Clisby, Harriet Jemima (1830–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Walker, Harriet Jemima

31 August, 1830
London, Middlesex, England


30 April, 1931 (aged 100)
London, Middlesex, England

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.

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