Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Agnes McCarthy (1903–1978)

by Joyce Gibberd

This article was published:

Mary Agnes McCarthy (1903-1978), nurse, policewoman and welfare officer, was born on 8 March 1903 at Sevenhill, near Clare, South Australia, seventh of ten children of native-born parents Charles James McCarthy, gardener, and his wife Elizabeth, née Shinnick. Mary was educated at St Dominic's Priory College, North Adelaide, and from 1913 at St Mary's College, Adelaide. She qualified as a nurse at the Broken Hill District Hospital in 1923 and was registered in Adelaide from 1924 to September 1929. Influenced by Kate Cocks, McCarthy joined the Police Department on 9 December 1929 and became the twelfth person to enter the Women Police branch as a constable. Apart from a few months at country stations, she remained in Adelaide until her retirement in 1963. It was usually her calm voice that was heard when the branch was telephoned. Her duties included being on call at all hours, taking statements from female witnesses, searching prisoners and escorting them to court, patrolling the streets and beaches, taking charge of wayward girls and, in extreme cases, making an arrest.

She was awarded two honourable mentions for her 'zeal, acumen and intelligence' which led to the conviction of an abortionist for manslaughter (1935), and which was displayed in her investigation of cases of conspiracy and attempted abortion (1938). McCarthy had joined the police force because of her concern for people. Her experiences led her to remark: 'We see life in the raw. We meet with the sordid and at times stark evil. I think you need a spiritual background to give you balance. And when you meet a man, however sodden with drink or with vice he may be, you must remember he has all the dignity of a human being'. Stories abounded of the way she helped children. In one instance Constable McCarthy was made the legal guardian of a neglected girl. To comply with the regulations for women police, she learned ju-jitsu and was issued with a Browning pistol, but never had to use either.

The activities of policewomen were in some respects similar to those of later social workers. In 1960 McCarthy and five female colleagues served as welfare officers of the Supreme Court of South Australia. Following her retirement from the force, she was appointed (1964) to the staff of the court as its first part-time welfare officer. For the next decade she assisted judges and the master in cases involving the well-being, custody and guardianship of children of divorced or separated parents.

Tall, slim and elegantly dressed (South Australian policewomen did not wear uniforms until 1974), McCarthy had blue eyes, soft features and a warm smile. While compassionate, she was also determined. She was a devout Catholic and gave freely of the little money she had to those in want, but she shunned publicity. Theatre, music, ballet and reading were her interests. Her last years were spent at Flora McDonald Lodge, Cowandilla. She died there on 3 April 1978. A police escort attended her burial in Centennial Park cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Police Gazette, 22 May 1935, 18 May 1938
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 June 1934, 7 Aug 1964
  • News (Adelaide), 6 May 1963
  • Nurses' Board of South Australia, Register of Nurses, Mental Nurses and Midwives, 1928 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Joyce Gibberd, 'McCarthy, Mary Agnes (1903–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 March, 1903
Sevenhill, South Australia, Australia


3 April, 1978 (aged 75)
Cowandilla, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.