Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edna Lillian Nelson (1896–1948)

by Hilary Weatherburn

This article was published:

Edna Lillian Nelson (1896-1948), medical practitioner, was born on 17 November 1896 at Candelo, New South Wales, fifth child of English-born parents Wright Smith, schoolteacher, and his wife Lillian, née Cordingly. Educated at Sydney Girls' High School, Edna gained honours in English and botany at the Leaving certificate examinations and entered the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1920). She graduated with first-class honours and won the Dagmar Berne prize 'for proficiency amongst women candidates'. Having worked as a resident medical officer (1920-21) at Sydney Hospital, she practised briefly in the suburbs. On 23 December 1924 at the Congregational Church, Mosman, she married William Thomas Nelson (1894-1954), a medical officer with the Commonwealth Department of Health; they were to have four sons, including twins.

The Nelsons moved to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, where Tom established a medical centre for miners. After settling in Melbourne with their young family in 1928, Edna set up in general practice. She was appointed honorary medical officer in the venereal diseases department of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital and became part-time director of its venereal diseases clinics; Tom worked in the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and later in the Department of Munitions. In 1936 the Nelsons returned to Sydney. While her husband engaged in private practice in Macquarie Street as a consultant in industrial diseases, Edna was director of the venereal-diseases clinic at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children. Granted nine months leave for postgraduate study in venereology and dermatology, she travelled in 1939 to London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen and Stockholm, and came home after the outbreak of World War II. At her own request she resumed her directorship of the venereal-diseases clinic on a part-time basis. In 1943 she was appointed a consultant.

Edna Nelson also set up in private practice in Macquarie Street. The war enabled her, as it did other female doctors, to take advantage of professional opportunities that had previously been restricted. From 1941, at Rachel Forster, she was relieving physician for diseases of the skin; in 1946 she gained the substantive post. She was a reserve clinical assistant in the department of dermatology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital from 1940 until her appointment as clinical assistant in 1946.

Actively engaged in professional and community organizations, Nelson represented the medical staff on the board of the Rachel Forster. She belonged to the Women's Club, Sydney, and the Medical Women's Society of New South Wales, and persistently sought to have women appointed to positions in teaching hospitals. As president (1946-48) of the Business and Professional Women's Club of Sydney, she made her home and garden at St Ives available for fund-raising activities and represented the club on the Australia group of the Liaison Committee of Women's International Organisations. Like many of her fellow members, she was particularly concerned about discriminatory practices in the workplace which denied women the male basic wage and equal pay for equal work and equal qualifications. Conservative in politics and a Congregationalist in religion, Dr Nelson was widely respected as a woman of integrity who 'inspired confidence and affection in her patients'. She died of a coronary occlusion on 25 February 1948 at Sydney Hospital and was cremated; her husband and sons survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • Principal Women of the Empire, vol 1 (Lond, 1940)
  • Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, Annual Report, 1935-48 and records (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Annual Report, 1940-48
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1948, p 664, 1955, p 55
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan 1915
  • Business and Professional Women's Club of Sydney records, 1939-77 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Hilary Weatherburn, 'Nelson, Edna Lillian (1896–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 June 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]

Alternative Names
  • Smith, Edna

17 November, 1896
Candelo, New South Wales, Australia


25 February, 1948 (aged 51)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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