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Porter, Una Beatrice (1900–1996)

by Barbara Lemon

This article was published online in 2020

Una Beatrice Porter (1900–1996), psychiatrist and philanthropist, was born on 17 October 1900 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, youngest of eight children of Victorian-born Frederick John Cato, merchant and philanthropist, and his wife Frances (Fanny), née Bethune, born in New Zealand. Though the family lived comfortably in the mansion ‘Kawarau’ on Tooronga Road, East Hawthorn, Una’s childhood was marred by the deaths in 1904 of the two siblings closest in age to her. She was particularly affected by the loss of her six-year-old sister Lois, who drowned in a pond in the family garden while the two girls were playing alone. Una was educated (1909–17) at Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew, and also spent several months boarding at Farringtons School, Kent, while her family visited England in 1914–15. Academically gifted, she was dux (1910) of the MLC junior school, but after her return to Australia in 1915 she was beset by illness and attended school irregularly.

Like her father, Cato was a devoted Christian and the two developed a close bond. She assisted in administering the F. J. Cato Charitable Fund, financing hospitals and missions in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and in Fiji and India. A keen photographer, she documented her travels to India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with her parents in 1926. Encouraged by her mother to volunteer for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), she was a foundation member (1925–30) of its national executive.

Having recommenced her studies with a private tutor, Cato matriculated in 1933 and enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1944). In March she wrote to friends with excitement about the laboratory she had established in the back garden: ‘one needs a remote centre to deal with frogs, chemical explosions, and microscopes’ (Cato 1933). One of very few women in the course, she met with hostility from some male students, and one professor told her outright that ‘there was no place in Medicine for women’ (Porter 1978). She suspended her studies in 1935 due to the illnesses and then deaths of her father and her niece. The next year she became trustee of her father’s charitable fund and took his place on the council of Queen’s College, University of Melbourne (1936–64). She was the first woman to sit on the council and was later a member (1961–75) of the council of St Hilda’s College.

In 1937–38 Cato studied social work through the Victorian Council of Social Training. Having purchased a holiday home at Olinda in 1933, she acquired a small cottage nearby in 1938 for the use of unemployed or sick families. In 1940 she returned to medical studies as part of a larger wartime cohort of women, graduating in 1944. She was a resident medical officer (1944–45) at Prince Henry’s Hospital before specialising in clinical psychiatry through placements at the Children’s Hospital and Royal Park Mental Hospital. From late 1945 she was employed for five months at the Ballarat Mental Hospital, where she was the first female member of staff and oversaw more than five hundred female patients.

On 12 April 1946 at the Methodist Church, Oxley Road, Auburn (Hawthorn), Cato married James Roland Porter, a businessman and retired Royal Australian Air Force squadron leader. Returning to work in 1949, she was senior psychiatrist at the Queen Victoria Hospital, Melbourne, establishing the hospital’s first psychiatric clinic. After retiring in 1960 she continued to work as an honorary consultant and became a member of the (Royal) Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in 1968. She identified always as a Christian psychiatrist, believing that religion and psychiatry shared a ‘deep concern about the nature of man and his needs’ (Porter 1962), and she sought the blessing of the Methodist Church in her work.

A lifelong devotee of the YWCA, Porter was elected world president (1963–67) and travelled widely, speaking on women’s issues. In 1970 Princess Anne named a new YWCA building in Canberra the Una Porter Centre. Porter subsequently served as president (1971–73) of the Australian YWCA. In 1972 a journalist was bemused to find that the silver-haired Porter, who was ‘no tub-thumping leader of Women’s Lib’ (Hamilton 1972, 2), had launched a national campaign opposing the tax on contraception and restrictions on family planning. Conservatively dressed, she favoured a string of pearls for public occasions. Though not tall, she had a commanding presence, her high forehead and prominent cheekbones framing a kindly face. Stamp collecting and fishing were her private pastimes.

In recognition of her services to the community, Porter had been appointed OBE in 1960 and raised to CBE in 1968. She was named a life governor of seven hospitals. Following the death of her husband in 1966, she established the James and Una Porter Trust Fund and made a series of generous, unpublicised donations to universities, hospitals, schools, and the YWCA, with a focus on psychiatric research and women’s education. Her extensive philanthropic contributions dating back to 1925 included funding (with her brother Alec) to establish the Cato chair of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne in 1963. In retirement, she wrote a short volume of prayers, Bless the Lord, O My Soul (1975), and edited a compilation of letters between her parents, Growing Together (1981). During the Australian bicentenary in 1988, she was one of only a few women named in the ‘Heritage 200’ list of significant Australians. She died on 24 June 1996 in East Melbourne and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australian YWCA. ‘Doctor Una Porter, O.B.E.’ 28, no. 1 (March 1964): 3
  • Blainey, Ann, and Geoffrey Blainey. ‘Philanthropist’s Life Dedication.’ Age (Melbourne), 12 July 1996, B2
  • Canberra Times. ‘Veteran YWCA Worker Visiting Canberra for Opening.’ 30 March 1971, 13
  • Cato, Una Beatrice. Letter to friends, 15 March 1933. Dr Una Beatrice Porter (née Cato) 1900–1996, 1997.0002, 2/20. University of Melbourne Archives
  • Hamilton, John. ‘The YWCA and the Subject of Great Concern to Women: The Boss Speaks Up for Her Girls.’ Herald (Melbourne), 24 August 1972, 2
  • Lemon, Barbara. ‘In Her Gift: Activism and Altruism in Australian Women’s Philanthropy, 1880–2005.’ PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2008
  • Phillips, Sue. ‘In Touch, with Stamps.’ Sun (Melbourne), 5 November 1974, 32
  • Porter, Una Beatrice. Letter to Martin Conway, World Student Christian Federation, 4 June 1962. Dr Una Beatrice Porter (née Cato) 1900–1996, 1997.0002, 2/20. University of Melbourne Archives
  • Porter, Una Beatrice. Transcribed autobiography, incomplete, 1978. Dr Una Beatrice Porter (née Cato) 1900–1996, 1997.0002, 3/1. University of Melbourne Archives
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 1997.0002, Dr Una Beatrice Porter (née Cato) 1900–1996

Additional Resources

Citation details

Barbara Lemon, 'Porter, Una Beatrice (1900–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/porter-una-beatrice-15694/text37490, published online 2020, accessed online 23 September 2021.

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