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Mary Stewart (May) Douglas (1904–1999)

by Anthony Laube

This article was published online in 2023

Mary Douglas, by B. Thomas, 1945

Mary Douglas, by B. Thomas, 1945

State Library of South Australia, b20779963

Mary Stewart Douglas (1904–1999), Girl Guide commissioner and army officer, was born on 20 January 1904 at Victor Harbor, South Australia, eldest of six children of South Australian-born parents Francis (Frank) John Douglas, medical practitioner, and his wife Margaret Clerk, née Robertson. Educated privately at first, May attended the Church of England Girls’ School (the Hermitage), Geelong, as a boarder. Her father, a country doctor with a large practice, was strongly involved in his community, a lead that she would follow.

In 1923, although at age nineteen too young to hold a warrant, Douglas formed the first Girl Guide company in Victor Harbor, a ‘momentous’ (Douglas [1988], 6) decision, she remembered, that would form the foundation for the rest of her life. She became district commissioner in 1926 and a member of the State executive in 1933. Having attended many accident victims with her father, and having herself been involved as a driver in a serious collision, she was a prime mover in obtaining Victor Harbor’s first ambulance in 1938. She moved to Adelaide as housekeeper for her doctor brother, and joined No. 408 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) of the Australian division of the British Red Cross Society.

Bitterly disappointed at not being selected (owing to her age) for VAD service in World War II with the Australian Imperial Force in the Middle East, Douglas was among the first officers selected for the Australian Women’s Army Service. She began full-time duty on 23 November 1941, as commandant, AWAS, in South Australia. Five feet nine and a half inches (177 cm) tall, she was brown-haired with a dark complexion and hazel eyes. Appointed as a temporary captain in January 1942 and promoted to temporary major in November, she became chief instructor at the AWAS officer training school in Melbourne in October. In January 1943 she was made assistant controller (Queensland). She was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed controller of the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service in July, with several thousand women under her direction. Her position entailed inspecting units in every State, as well as in New Guinea, Borneo, Papua, New Britain, Hollandia, Morotai, and Bougainville.

Completing her service on 24 June 1946, Douglas returned to Victor Harbor, nursing her sister until her death from Hodgkin’s disease in 1947, and caring for her aunt and parents until their deaths; from 1955 they lived in Walkerville. She also took up Guide work again as district commissioner and member of the State executive, becoming deputy State commissioner in 1949, and State commissioner from 1952 to 1958. Appointed OBE in the 1953 coronation honours, she was awarded guiding’s highest honour, the Silver Fish, in 1957. In 1961 she was appointed honorary colonel of the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps.

All her life Douglas was a keen sportswoman. She was three times country women’s golf champion of South Australia, in 1929, 1931, and 1937 (and also runner-up three times). Until her late seventies she played at the Royal Adelaide Golf Club, although wearing a leg calliper for many years. As a young woman she played baseball and tennis, surfed, and was a proficient horsewoman. She was a member of the Victoria League, on the committee of the Anglican St Laurence’s Home for the Aged, and co-founder of the Ex-Service Women’s Club.

Disarmingly self-deprecating, with a host of lifelong friends, and the centre of a much-loved large family, Douglas was active to the end, travelling to England at the age of eighty-three for a younger friend’s eightieth birthday, and remaining involved in the guide movement and keenly interested in sports. She was determined and compassionate, with ‘a handshake like a vice, merry intelligent eyes and a quick wit’ (Hirst 1983, 18). From 1965 she lived at Fitzroy, Adelaide, before moving to a retirement village in 1985. The Girl Guides’ Association described her as a ‘national treasure’ (Hirst 1983, 18) in 1983. In retirement she self-published a biography of her father, titled Counsellor, Guide and Friend (1984), and her own memoirs, A Happy Life ([1988]). For her services to veterans she was appointed OAM in 1997. She died on 6 May 1999 at North Adelaide and, after a funeral at St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Walkerville, was buried in Victor Harbor cemetery; she had never married.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Blandy, Richard. Interview with the author, 30 April 2012
  • Cockburn, Stewart. Notable Lives: Profiles of 21 South Australians. Adelaide: Ferguson Publications, 1997
  • Douglas, May. A Happy Life 1904–. [Adelaide: M. Douglas, 1988?]
  • Herring, Enid Dalton. They Wanted to Be Nightingales: A Story of the VAD/AAMWS in World War II. Hawthorndene, SA: Investigator Press, 1982
  • Hirst, Christabel. ‘Guides Honor Their “National Treasure.”’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 November 1983, 18
  • Kelton, Greg. ‘Guiding Light for Girls.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 15 May 1999, 66
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, SFX30364

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Anthony Laube, 'Douglas, Mary Stewart (May) (1904–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/douglas-mary-stewart-may-32465/text40268, published online 2023, accessed online 17 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mary Douglas, by B. Thomas, 1945

Mary Douglas, by B. Thomas, 1945

State Library of South Australia, b20779963

Life Summary [details]

Birth

20 January, 1904
Victor Harbor, South Australia, Australia

Death

6 May, 1999 (aged 95)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

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.

Education
Occupation
Military Service
Awards