Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jean Littlejohn (1899–1990)

by Stephen Due

This article was published:

Jean Littlejohn (1899-1990), medical practitioner, was born on 3 April 1899 at Nelson, New Zealand, youngest of five children of Scottish-born parents William Still Littlejohn, school principal, and his wife Jean, née Berry.  In 1904, following her father’s appointment as headmaster of Scotch College, the family moved to Melbourne.  Educated at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Jean was noted for her academic and sporting achievements, winning the Victorian schoolgirl tennis championship in three successive years.  She followed her two brothers into medicine at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1922), where she studied with Kate Campbell and Jean Macnamara.  Joining the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital as a resident medical officer, she was drawn to the emerging specialisation in 'ear, nose and throat' surgery and in 1923 was appointed medical superintendent.

In 1924 Littlejohn entered private practice, taking rooms with her brothers in Collins Street.  She continued her association with VEEH where she became an honorary clinical assistant, rising to assistant surgeon in 1929.  Awarded the first diploma in laryngology and otology from the University of Melbourne in 1933, she was the first woman to be appointed an honorary aural surgeon at VEEH and was promoted to senior surgeon in 1933.  Also appointed an honorary ENT surgeon to the Queen Victoria Hospital, she was admitted as a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1935.

During World War II Littlejohn was ENT surgeon to women in the armed forces, and in 1947 was appointed clinical dean at VEEH and elected to the faculty of medicine at the University of Melbourne—the first woman to join that body.  A dedicated and sensitive teacher, committed to both education and research, she attended international congresses on otolaryngology in London (1949) and Paris (1961).  The meeting in London led to the establishment of the Otolaryngological Society of Australia in 1950; Littlejohn was its president in 1958-59.

Cheerful, forthright and practical, Littlejohn served (1946-59) on VEEH’s committee of management and as chairman of the honorary medical staff from 1950 until her resignation as senior surgeon in 1952.  As an honorary consulting aural surgeon, she then established a clinic for infant deafness, pioneering the use of hearing aids for babies.  In 1957 the hospital established the Jean Littlejohn Deafness Investigation and Research Unit, where she served as otologist until 1974.

'Dr Jean', as she was affectionately known, was appointed OBE (1962) and CBE (1975).  She did not marry, but found a devoted friend in the bookseller Margareta Webber, with whom she lived for over fifty years.  In their heyday in South Yarra they had a large wine cellar and dined regularly at Maxim’s.  Foundation president (1948) of Soroptimist International in Victoria and a member of the Lyceum Club, she finally retired from medicine in 1978, when she broke her hip.  A biennial prize in otorhynolaryngology was established in 1976 in her honour.  She died at East Melbourne on 27 November 1990 and was cremated with Presbyterian rites.

Select Bibliography

  • M. O. Reid, The Ladies Came to Stay, 1965
  • L. Gardiner, The Eye and Ear, 1968
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 17 June 1991, p 846
  • Australian Journal of Oto-laryngology, vol 1, no 2, 1992, p 187
  • Australian Journal of Oto-laryngology, vol 3, no 5, 2000, p 403
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 July 1978, p 16

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephen Due, 'Littlejohn, Jean (1899–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 April, 1899
Nelson, New Zealand


27 November, 1990 (aged 91)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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