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Marjorie Jean Lyon (1905–1975)

by John L. Lyon

This article was published:

Marjorie Lyon, 1927

Marjorie Lyon, 1927

Marjorie Jean Lyon (1905-1975), surgeon and prisoner of war, was born on 13 February 1905 at Northam, Western Australia, fourth child of Australian-born parents Patrick Pearson Lyon, barrister, and his wife Jeanie Dunlop, née MacMaster. J. L. Lyon was her grandfather. Marjorie attended Northam State School and Methodist Ladies' College, Perth, where she was twice dux. She won the Dagmar Berne prize in the year that she graduated from the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1928), then served as a resident medical officer at several city hospitals. While studying in Britain, she qualified as a member (1934) of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and as a fellow (1936) of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

On 30 July 1937 Lyon joined the Malayan Medical Service. She was stationed at Johore Bahru in January 1942 at the time of the Japanese advance. Ordered to Singapore, she joined her English friend Dr Elsie Crowe at the general hospital and took charge of a shock ward. When evacuation orders were received, she embarked in the Kuala with Crowe and other personnel. Bombers sank the vessel near Pompong Island in the Lingga Archipelago. Injured herself, Lyon swam one-quarter of a mile (400 m) to the island, treated Crowe—whom she had saved from drowning—and cared for the wounded. Days later she, Crowe and others were rescued by the Kofuku Maru (Krait) and taken to Sumatra, Netherlands East Indies. They subsequently made their way to Padang. Although the arrival of the Japanese was imminent, Lyon chose to remain with the wounded and was interned as a prisoner of war. She assumed medical responsibility for approximately 50 British and 2500 Dutch women and children, initially located at a Salvation Army hospital, then at a Catholic monastery and later at a gaol. Finally, the internees were moved to a jungle camp at Bangkinang.

For three and a half years they endured food shortages, overcrowding and poor sanitation which caused malnutrition and disease. Some of the Dutch internees challenged Lyon's authority, but, due to her unstinting care and rigorous measures, the camp recorded only 160 deaths. Despite being only 5 ft 1 in. (155 cm) tall, she 'gave the Japanese hell. She was always demanding medicine and getting slapped for asking'. Crowe was impressed with Lyon's integrity and by the way she regarded 'each and every patient' as 'sacrosanct'. After the Japanese had surrendered, Lyon was evacuated to Singapore. Lady Mountbatten met her there and described her as 'an outstanding woman doctor . . . whose work . . . will make history, and who succeeded in commanding and controlling the Japanese and seeing that they carried out her orders!'

Dr Lyon was appointed O.B.E. in 1946. She practised with the Malayan Medical Service until 1950. Following a brief period as a private specialist, she joined the Western Australian Schools Medical Services in 1951 and retired in 1970. Lyon was a reserved and selfless woman who helped her relations, friends and acquaintances; she lived quietly at her Nedlands home and was devoted to her dog and garden. Suffering from cancer, she died of coronary vascular disease on 27 March 1975 at Nedlands and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • G. M. Walton, The Building of a Tradition (Perth, 1949)
  • A. Coates and N. Rosenthal, The Albert Coates Story (Melb, 1977)
  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (Melb, 1988)
  • L. R. Silver, Krait (Syd, 1992)
  • Australian Women's Digest, Dec 1945
  • Weekend News, 29 Mar 1975
  • West Australian, 18 Feb 1984
  • Bulletin, 29 Mar 1988
  • M. J. Lyon diaries (privately held).

Citation details

John L. Lyon, 'Lyon, Marjorie Jean (1905–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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