Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fanny Reading (1884–1974)

by Hilary L. Rubinstein

This article was published:

Fanny Reading (1884-1974), medical practitioner and Jewish communal leader, was born on 2 December 1884 at Karelitz (Korelichi), near Minsk, Russia, eldest of five children of Nathan Jacob Rubinowich, merchant, and his wife Esther Rose, née Levinson, both of whom were orthodox Jews. In 1918 her father adopted by deed poll the surname Reading.

In 1889 Fanny and her mother joined her father, who had migrated to Victoria. She spent her childhood at Ballarat, which then had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in Australia. Later the family moved to St Kilda where Fanny, who embarked in 1906 on a bachelor of music course at the University of Melbourne, taught part-time at the St Kilda Hebrew School and served as honorary secretary of the Maccabean Union, a Jewish literary and debating society. She was also a founder and vice-president of the influential Jewish Young People's Association, established in 1911 to counteract apathy and assimilation.

Taking out a diploma of music in 1914, Fanny embarked on a teaching career. But an increasing interest in welfare and health issues induced her to return to the university in 1916 to study medicine (M.B., B.S., 1922). She moved to Sydney and joined her brother Abraham Solomon Reading in general practice. Like most female physicians of the day, 'Dr. Fanny' treated mainly women and children. In due course she became an honorary medical officer at St George Hospital, at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children and the Wolper Jewish Hospital, and she was appointed a life governor of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, the Dalwood Children's Homes, and the Women's Hospital, Crown Street.

Dr Reading believed that Jewish women should work actively to achieve improvements in their own community and in the wider Australian society. In 1923, following discussions with a visiting female emissary from the Jewish National Fund of Palestine, she founded the Council of Jewish Women of New South Wales (president, 1923-31). The council was dedicated to four ideals: Judaism, the land of Israel, Jewish education, and philanthropy in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. In 1925 it affiliated to the International Council of Jewish Women, of which Dr Reading was to become vice-president in 1949.

In 1925 she was one of the Australian delegates to the quinquennial convention of the International Council of Women in Washington and to a Zionist congress in Vienna. She also visited Palestine and returned home dedicated to the Zionist cause, for which she worked staunchly at a time when its fortunes in the Jewish community were chequered and its aims frequently misunderstood. Her conviction fired her work for the establishment of maternity hospitals and other welfare projects.

Fostered by Fanny Reading, who travelled widely interstate in 1927-29, the Council of Jewish Women spread to all States. In 1929 at the first Australasian Jewish women's conference the National Council of Jewish Women was formed. Dr Reading became its life president. Her wider social welfare work, undertaken without reference to creed, was recognized by the King George V Jubilee (1935) and the King George VI Coronation (1937) medals.

In 1947 Smith's Weekly accused Australian Jewry of sending funds collected for the Jewish rescue organization, Youth Aliyah, to aid the campaign against the British in Palestine. In the Supreme Court in 1949, Dr Reading appeared as plaintiff on behalf of Youth Aliyah. She lost the case because the law did not provide for group libel, but won a moral victory for the Jewish community when the judge directed the verdict with regret.

In 1957 Dr Reading attended an I.C.J.W. convention in Israel where a settlement established earlier in her honour was dedicated as Neve Zipporah, the latter word being her Hebrew name. In 1961 she was appointed M.B.E. two weeks after Sydney Jewry had paid tribute to her with a banquet. The N.C.J.W. War Memorial Fanny Reading Council House, Woollahra, was opened in 1961, and the auditorium of the National Jewish Memorial Centre, Canberra, also bearing her name, in 1972.

In appearance Fanny Reading was slight and fair. A calm manner masked a considerable determination evidenced in her own professional achievements as well as in her communal and wider efforts. A practical visionary, she did much to establish women as a distinctive force within the organized Australian Jewish community, linking the old idea of charitable service and fund-raising as appropriate areas for female endeavour with the newer, feminist-inspired goal of female participation in communal policy formation. She died unmarried on 19 November 1974 in the Wolper Jewish Hospital, Woollahra, established by the N.C.J.W. in 1953, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21, 22 Nov 1974
  • Australian, 22 Nov 1974
  • National Council of Jewish Women, Archives, Sydney
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society Archives, Great Synagogue, Sydney
  • Reading papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Hilary L. Rubinstein, 'Reading, Fanny (1884–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rubinowich, Zipporah

2 December, 1884
Minsk, Belarus


19 November, 1974 (aged 89)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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