Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Grace Mary Parbery (1913–1993)

by Ann Hardy

This article was published:

Grace Mary Parbery (1913–1993), social worker, was born on 23 September 1913 at Marrickville, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents Hugh Victor Parbery, linesman, and his wife Ivy Evelyn May, née Townsend. Grace spent most of her childhood at Shell Harbour. She enrolled at Sydney Girls’ High School in January 1928, leaving in December 1930 to pursue domestic duties. During this time the family lived at 16 Glen Street, Marrickville. She qualified as an almoner (medical social worker) at the University of Sydney (Cert.Soc.Stud., 1939), and became assistant almoner at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, Redfern.

During World War II Parbery worked for the Australian Red Cross Society at two military hospitals: the 113th Australian General Hospital, Concord, and the 114th Australian General Hospital, Goulburn, where she gained experience in mental health care. In 1947 she succeeded Elizabeth Ward as almoner at the Royal Newcastle Hospital (RNH), and in 1949 she was the RNH representative eligible for election to the New South Wales Council of Social Services. Describing the role of the almoner, she explained that assisting people with financial, emotional, or environmental problems supported physical recovery, and that knowledge of an individual’s living conditions was necessary to better understand their circumstances. This broad approach reflected social work theory and practice. Her article ‘The Almoner Department in the Royal Newcastle Hospital’ in the Australian Journal of Social Work (1950) detailed the various departments, other public facilities, and the role of staff in the Newcastle public health service. She emphasised the essential function of almoners in all areas of medicine, as well as in the community.

In 1950 Parbery and Richard Gibson surveyed people with multiple sclerosis—and later also aged people with a disability—in the Hunter region. Their report, which recommended domiciliary, nursing, and medical care, was supported by the hospital’s medical superintendent, Christian McCaffrey, and its board. Parbery and Gibson developed a model whereby elderly patients received hospital-based programs of assistance and rehabilitation in their own homes. In 1954 a domiciliary care service and retraining unit was established, providing in-patient care, a day hospital, and home support. Parbery played a key part in instituting this comprehensive geriatric service, referred to as the ‘Newcastle Experience.’ At the time, the only other such facility was the Montefiore Medical Center, New York, United States of America. The Newcastle service would remain the only one of its type in New South Wales until the mid-1960s. Senior medical social worker at the RNH from 1969, Parbery retired in 1973. In 1986 she was awarded the OAM.

Parbery was a tall, sturdy woman. She was widely respected, sociable, and interested in current affairs, politics, and the arts. Her home was an ‘enchanting waterfront retreat’ (Newcastle Herald 1986, 6) at Eleebana, Lake Macquarie, where she entertained people from all walks of life. She believed in a team approach and that medicine must be seen in its social context. The application of these principles enabled her, as a social worker, to make a significant contribution to the new field of geriatric medicine. Her innovative approach to domiciliary care influenced practices in Australia and internationally. Later in her life, she herself depended on the program she had helped establish, receiving home care, visits from the district sister, and Meals on Wheels. She died on 15 March 1993 at New Lambton Heights and was cremated following a service at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cooks Hill. She had never married. The following year the Hunter branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers initiated the Grace Parbery award in her memory.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Social Work. ‘In Memoriam: Grace Mary Parbery.’ 47, no. 2 (June 1994): 16

  • Gibson, R. M. ‘The Newcastle Experience.’ In Recent Advances in Gerontology, edited by Hajime Orimo, Kaoru Shimada, Masami Iriki, and Daisaku Maeda, 389–93. Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica, 1979

  • Marsden, Susan, assisted by Cynthia Hunter. The Royal: A Castle Grand, a Purpose Noble, the Royal Newcastle Hospital 18172005. New Lambton, NSW: Hunter New England Area Health Service, 2005

  • Newcastle Herald. ‘Pioneer in Scheme for Disabled Honoured.’ 19 January 1986, 6

  • Newcastle Herald. ‘RNH Pioneer Noted for Teamwork.’ 17 March 1993, 9

  • Parbery, Grace. ‘The Almoner Department in the Royal Newcastle Hospital.’ Australian Journal of Social Work 3, no. 4 (1950): 1–4

  • University of Newcastle. Cultural Collections. Royal Newcastle Hospital. A7376 (ii), Correspondence Files and Miscellanea

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Citation details

Ann Hardy, 'Parbery, Grace Mary (1913–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Grace Parbury, 1961

Grace Parbury, 1961

Newcastle Region Library, 62987

Life Summary [details]


23 September, 1913
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


15 March, 1993 (aged 79)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (rectal)

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.

Military Service