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Beatrice (Bea) Holt (1900–1988)

by Jill Waterhouse

This article was published:

Beatrice (Bea) Holt (1900-1988), medical practitioner and mother- and baby-care advocate, was born on 4 January 1900 at North Carlton, Melbourne, elder child of Victorian-born parents William Henry Sharwood, clerk, and his wife Emily, née Brown. Beatrice attended Princes Hill State School, South Melbourne College, and Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew (dux 1917), before proceeding to the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1923). In 1927, when her father was appointed crown solicitor, she left infant-welfare work in Melbourne and moved to Canberra with her parents, opening a practice in Northbourne Avenue.

Hospitalised with an infection after an accidental needle prick, she met Dr John Ackland Holt (d.1972), who helped to save her arm from possible amputation. They were married on 1 December 1931 at the Presbyterian Church, Braddon. After living in Brisbane for a year, they returned to Canberra in 1934 and settled at Kingston (formerly Eastlake) where John, who was particularly skilled in orthopaedics and obstetrics, practised for the next thirty-five years. Beatrice acted as medical superintendent at Canberra Community Hospital during World War II and occasionally as pathologist, but never re-entered general practice.

Of their five children, the first was the victim of a cot-death and the last was stillborn. Although Bea Holt rarely spoke of these sad experiences, they may have intensified her concern for mother and child care, especially in Canberra, where many recently transferred people lived in temporary accommodation without the support of extended families. She did not believe that a maternal instinct was all that was necessary for the welfare of mothers and babies.

Holt became involved in the Canberra Mothercraft Society, which had been formally established in February 1927. A baby health clinic, the first of many, opened at Eastlake in July. Soon every newborn baby was being checked by an infant-welfare sister and mothers were receiving advice on important subjects such as the benefits of breast-feeding. Other ideas led to Canberra’s first preschool system, an emergency housekeeping service, occasional child-care centres and the separation of the hospital’s maternity wing from wards treating illnesses. Appointed a life member of the society in 1937, Holt served as president in 1935-37, 1940-44 and 1948-51—years of considerable pressure. From 1946 to 1951 the Australian Capital Territory had by far the highest birth rate in Australia. The society also suffered divisions, exacerbated by bureaucratic measures and by the community’s high expectations of social planning.

Reticent in private, Bea Holt could be forceful in public but always maintained a natural dignity and composure. In 1949-50 she was president of the Canberra High School Parents and Citizens Association. From 1962 to 1964 she was president of the Canberra Association of University Women and in 1964 acting president of the Australian Federation of University Women. She spoke on subjects as varied as `Immunisation against Infectious Diseases in Childhood’ (1941) and `The Changing Place of Women’ (1965), gently advocating in the latter the removal of barriers to the advancement of women in Australia. Professionally qualified in dressmaking, millinery and bookbinding, she also maintained an interest in engineering, perhaps best expressed in her taste for sporty cars, including a powder-blue Karmann Ghia. Survived by two of her three daughters and her elder son, she died on 1 June 1988 at Bruce and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Crisp and L. Rudduck, The Mothering Years (1979)
  • J. Newman and J. Warren, Royal Canberra Hospital (1993)
  • A. J. Proust (ed), History of Medicine in Canberra and Queanbeyan (1994)
  • Canberra and District Hist Soc, Newsletter, Aug 1988, p 8
  • funeral address by R. Sharwood (Canberra and District Historical Society)
  • Canberra Mothercraft Society records (ACT Heritage Library)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jill Waterhouse, 'Holt, Beatrice (Bea) (1900–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 June 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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