Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Dame Annie Jean Macnamara (1899–1968)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published:

Dame Annie Jean Macnamara (1899-1968), medical scientist, was born on 1 April 1899 at Beechworth, Victoria, second daughter of Victorian-born parents John Macnamara, clerk of courts, and his wife Annie, née Fraser. She was brought up in her mother's Presbyterian faith, but it was probably from her Catholic father, impetuous and forthright, that she inherited her determined spirit.

After the family moved to Melbourne in 1907, Jean attended Spring Road State School, Malvern. A scholarship took her to Presbyterian Ladies' College where she became editor of the school magazine, Patchwork, and at 15 won the prize for general excellence. The war years strengthened her seriousness of purpose and she felt obliged 'to be of some use in the world' when she entered the University of Melbourne on an exhibition at 17. She graduated M.B., B.S., in 1922 (as part of a brilliant year which included (Dame) Kate Campbell, Lucy Bryce, Jean Littlejohn and (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet) with exhibitions in surgery and anatomy and the Beaney scholarship in surgery. She became a resident medical officer at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital.

In May 1923 Jean, with high recommendations, was appointed resident at the (Royal) Children's Hospital. She remained until 1925 when, having graduated M.D., she became clinical assistant to the Children's out-patients' physician and entered private practice with a special emphasis on poliomyelitis. In 1925-31 she was consultant and medical officer responsible to the Poliomyelitis Committee of Victoria led by Dr John Dale and in 1930-31 honorary adviser on polio to official authorities in New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. In 1928-51 she was honorary medical officer to the Yooralla Hospital School for Crippled Children.

The 1925 polio epidemic prompted Dr Macnamara to test the use of immune serum in the treatment of patients at the pre-paralytic stage. Convinced of the value of the method, she published and defended her results in Australian and British journals in 1927-35, notably with F. G. Morgan in the Lancet of 27 February 1932. The therapy, difficult to administer properly, was damned by the discouraging findings of W. H. Park in New York in 1931, even though Jean was quick to pin-point vital weaknesses in his procedures. The efficacy of the treatment was in fact never disproved and although its general adoption was 'wrecked', she believed, 'on the rocks of carelessness' in America, she continued to use it privately. Her discovery, in collaboration with Macfarlane Burnet, of the existence of more than one strain of polio virus (reported in 1931 in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology) has, however, been acknowledged as an early step towards the development of the Salk vaccine.

From September 1931 to October 1933 Dr Macnamara travelled in England and North America on a Rockefeller fellowship. Conflict with 'John Dale and his crew' over the development of immune serum therapy firmed a resolve to concentrate on orthopaedics. An admirer of Dame Agnes Hunt whom she met at the Shropshire Orthopaedic Hospital, she wrote to her mother on 3 February 1932, 'my best chance of real happiness is to hitch onto some ideal like she did and go for it'. Typically she added, 'I'd like to come [back] to Australia while this Government is in power for with Mr [Viscount] Bruce, Mr [Sir John] Latham and Mrs Lyons all friendly I would get a good spin'. Although research still appealed, and she worked part-time at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne in 1933-37 on serum and psittacosis, her special field remained conservative orthopaedics.

While overseas she preached the necessity for adequate after-care of disabled persons, met President Roosevelt, ordered Australia's first artificial respirator, and armed herself with new ideas for splinting and rehabilitation. She also wrote to health departments around the world canvassing the possibility that the polio virus was transmitted through milk.

On 19 November 1934, at the Presbyterian Church, Gardenvale, Jean married Joseph Ivan Connor, a dermatologist. They acquired Springfield, South Yarra, the former home of the pioneer woman doctor Lilian Alexander.

Only 5 ft (152 cm) tall, plump, rather shabbily dressed, quick-witted and blunt in manner, Jean Macnamara (who rolled her own and had a smoker's cough) won great renown for her orthopaedic work, being appointed D.B.E. in 1935. Moving from Collins Street to larger premises at Spring Street, she often worked through week-ends and went without fee. During the 1937-38 polio epidemic she supervised patient care at both the Children's and Fairfield hospitals. She had little time for the unco-operative, but her remarkable ability to inspire confidence in her patients, mostly children, filled her clinics with families prepared to wait hours for her attention.

Her method was to splint the paralysed part of the body until the damaged nerve had recovered and patiently re-educate the muscles. She spent much time not only with her patients but with her splint-maker, devising ingenious restraining devices. She organized a system of itinerant physiotherapists and almoners and a volunteer chauffeur service; in 1938 she established a clinic at Carlton where thirty children were treated daily, being driven there and back and given a hot midday dinner. Dame Jean also conducted country clinics and administered the Arthur Marsden Whiting Sympathy Fund. She belonged to the Consultative Council for Polio in 1937-42 and 1946-47 and served on the 1935 Queensland royal commission investigating Sister Elizabeth Kenny's treatment. Wisely, she supported the establishment of an experimental Kenny treatment centre at Brighton (Hampton), at the same time acquiring improved hospital facilities for herself. Her work extended to victims of lead poisoning and cerebral palsy and to healthy people with poor posture. The first centre for spastic children in Australia was opened on her recommendation at the Children's Hospital in 1940.

From girlhood Jean had an affinity with the land, farm holidays impressing upon her the effects of rabbit and drought in destroying 'the children's inheritance'. In 1933 at Princeton University her introduction to Richard Shope, who was trying to combat myxomatosis in rabbits, had given her the idea of deploying myxomatosis to eradicate the rabbits in Australia. She was unaware that H. de B. Aragao had advocated the same solution years earlier and that a Brazilian strain of the virus had been held in Melbourne since 1919. When the virus sample she dispatched to Melbourne in 1933 was destroyed, Jean elicited the support of Stanley Bruce in London and arranged that tests for the safety of domestic animals be carried out in Cambridge by Sir Charles Martin. Lionel Bull of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research then tested Australian animals at Werribee, Victoria, in 1937 and until 1944 ran a series of field trials on rabbits, using mosquitoes and fleas as vectors, in the Spencer Gulf area and the dry north of South Australia: the virus failed to spread.

Convinced that the experiments had been abandoned prematurely, Dame Jean revived the cause in a letter to the Melbourne Herald on 11 May 1949 and conducted a heated newspaper exchange with Bull and other scientists. Having worked for the election and appointment of a sympathetic minister for lands, (Sir) Rutherford Guthrie, she lobbied producers' organizations and co-opted the support of entomologist G. W. Douglas. Testing was resumed, in a more favourable location along the Murray River, in 1950, initially without success. Then, by chance, at the end of the year the virus became epizootic.

The aspersions Dame Jean had cast upon the professionalism of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization officers rankled. But in 1952-53 'myxo' was reputed to have augmented the wool cheque by at least £30 million—the 'conspicuous gadfly' had been vindicated. The woolgrowers gave her £800 and a clock.

With her husband, who died in 1955, Jean had a hobby farm in the Romsey district. She belonged to the Compost Society and fought against indiscriminate use of pesticides. In a bitter campaign she also thwarted the plans of Francis Ratcliffe, head of the wildlife division of C.S.I.R.O., to protect breeders' rabbits against myxomatosis. In 1964 the animal house at the Keith Turnbull Research Station, Frankston, was named in her honour. The University of Melbourne awarded her an honorary LL.D. in 1966.

Neglectful of her own health, Dame Jean continued to treat victims of paralysis until her death from heart disease on 13 October 1968. Many former patients attended her funeral which, it was said, resembled a scene from Lourdes. According to her wishes, her ashes were buried under a mossy rock at Beechworth. She was survived by her two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Zwar, The Dame (Melb, 1984)
  • Jean Macnamara papers (MS 2399, National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Macnamara, Dame Annie Jean (1899–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024