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Helen Mary Mayo (1878–1967)

by Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold

This article was published:

Helen Mary Mayo (1878-1967), medical practitioner, was born on 1 October 1878 in Adelaide, eldest of seven children of George Gibbes Mayo, draughtsman and later civil engineer, and his wife Henrietta Mary, née Donaldson. Educated by a tutor at home—her studies included physics—and for two years at the Advanced School for Girls, she matriculated in 1895 and entered the University of Adelaide next year. Helen enrolled in arts because her father considered her too young to study medicine. She began medical studies in 1898, winning the Davies Thomas scholarship in 1901 and the Everard scholarship in 1902; she was the university's second woman graduate in medicine (1902). After a year as house surgeon at the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital, she left for London where she was a clinical clerk at the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street. Following a course in tropical medicine, she gained experience in midwifery in Dublin and at St Stephen's Hospital for women and children in Delhi.

Returning to Adelaide in 1906 Mayo entered private practice, combining midwifery and the management of the medical problems of women and children; she was honorary anaesthetist at the Adelaide Children's Hospital. In 1911 she became clinical bacteriologist at the Adelaide Hospital and later established its vaccine department. She gathered material there for her thesis on biological therapy by the administration of vaccines, proceeding in 1926 to the first M.D. degree awarded to a woman by the university.

During World War I Mayo had been demonstrator in pathology at the university and in 1926-34 she was clinical lecturer in medical diseases of children. From 1919 she was physician to out-patients at the Children's Hospital and, from 1926, physician to in-patients. On retiring in 1938 she became honorary consulting physician, but in 1940 returned to the hospital as senior paediatric adviser for the duration of World War II, simultaneously organizing the Red Cross donor transfusion service and instructing in infant feeding.

In 1909 Mayo's paper on infant mortality had called for the early registration of births and advocated educating women for motherhood rather than relying on instinct. She envisaged a close social and psychological relationship between mothers, nurses, doctors and voluntary workers providing specialized attention for all mothers, regardless of economic circumstances. That year she and social worker Harriet Stirling set up a small clinic in the Franklin Street Kindergarten, to attend and advise mothers in and near the city. This grew into the School for Mothers' Institute and Baby Health Centre and in 1927 became the very effective Mothers' and Babies' Health Association; it eventually served the whole State. Mayo was honorary chief medical officer until 1967 and president in 1949-53. In 1921 her emphasis on the well-being of mother and baby led her to initiate ante-natal, and later post-natal, consultations for impoverished women in West Adelaide. She also supported the kindergarten movement. In 1935 her 'zeal for efficiency' was rewarded by appointment as O.B.E.

In 1913 Mayo and Stirling had called a meeting which, despite opposition from some doctors, resulted in their opening a small hospital for babies at St Peters. Financial problems led to the government taking over the hospital which moved to Woodville in 1917 as Mareeba Babies' Hospital. Dr Mayo dominated its policy formation: she was honorary physician and honorary responsible medical officer in 1921-47. She and her colleagues assessed and implemented overseas developments in new methods of infant feeding and the prevention of cross-infection. She travelled to England and Canada in 1920 and in 1933, after a paediatric congress in London, visited colleagues in Amsterdam and Germany. In hospitals, birth control and gynaecological clinics and children's welfare services she observed new techniques and ideas, some of which were later incorporated into M.B.H.A. nurses' training.

In 1914 Mayo had become the first woman university councillor in Australia; she continued to serve on Adelaide's council until 1960. She helped to establish St Ann's University College for Women and was chairman of its council in 1939-59. In 1909 she had been a founder of the Women's Non-Party Political Association, a group of articulate, well-educated and mainly Protestant women. She was first president of the Lyceum Club for professional and artistic women in Adelaide in 1922. In 1939-45 she presided over the Australian Federation of University Women. Mayo was also a member of the South Australian branch of the British Medical Association and a foundation fellow of the (Royal) Australasian College of Physicians; she also joined the Australian Paediatric Association. For twenty years from 1943 she sat on the State Advisory Committee (later Advisory Council) on Health and Medical Services.

Dr Mayo was a progressive woman of forceful views. She was almost certainly a political conservative but she was never attracted by the nastier elements of the Progressive-Fabian emphasis on national efficiency through community health which was espoused by some Australian doctors between the two world wars. She was short and plump with curly hair, a round face and alert expression with a deep rich voice and infectious laugh. She preferred 'sensible English clothes' and had a brisk and bustling manner; her hobbies of sketching and embroidery evidence her concentration and patience. Unmarried, she shared a North Adelaide house with her partner Dr Constance Finlayson and Miss Gertrude Young, sister of financier Sir Walter Young. Helen Mayo served maternal and child welfare during four decades when South Australia's infant mortality rate fell by 60 per cent. She emphasized the social responsibility owed to the community by the medical profession and her foresight, tenacity and energy enabled her to complete many valuable projects.

She died on 13 November 1967 and was cremated. Her portrait by William Dargie hangs at St Ann's; and rooms there, and at the university, and an annual M.B.H.A. lecture are named for her.

Select Bibliography

  • Mothers' and Babies' Health Association of South Australia, Annual Report, 1911-12 to 1967-68
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2 Mar 1968, 20 Feb 1971
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 June 1935, 16 Nov 1947
  • PRG 127, and D444 6 (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold, 'Mayo, Helen Mary (1878–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 May 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

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