Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joan Janet Refshauge (1906–1979)

by Donald Denoon

This article was published:

Joan Janet Brown Refshauge (1906-1979), medical practitioner and medical administrator, was born on 3 December 1906 at Armadale, Melbourne, eldest of five children of Victorian-born parents Francis Christopher Refshauge, a state school teacher who became an invalid, and his wife Margaret Isabella, née Craig. Joan's parents made every sacrifice to guide their children to higher degrees. Educated at University High School, Presbyterian Ladies' College and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1928; M.Sc., 1929; M.B., B.S., 1939), she taught mathematics at university and in schools, completed a diploma of education in 1930 and turned to medicine in 1935. At the Presbyterian Church, South Melbourne, on 19 May 1937 she married Max Wulfing Bergin, a surveyor; their son Rupert was born in 1942. She worked as a hospital resident until May 1943 when she was commissioned captain in the (Royal) Australian Army Medical Corps. Posted to the 2nd Australian Army Out-Patients Department, she was responsible for the health of servicewomen in and around Melbourne. Her appointment terminated in April 1946.

Max had served in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit during World War II and remained in Papua. Joan followed him to Port Moresby in 1947. In order to be employed in the Department of Public Health, she was required to confine herself to maternal and child health. After she divorced her husband in 1948, she continued to practise, and persuaded her widowed mother to join her and Rupert. She was a highly professional doctor and—unlike some of her flamboyant male colleagues—reassuring to her Melanesian patients.

As part of the postwar expansion of the department, Refshauge was deputed to establish the programmes which evolved into the Queen Elizabeth II infant, child and maternal health service. The task required delicate liaison with the missions which had created these services and continued to deliver most of them. She recruited staff, organized the training of indigenous nurses and began school health-services. While assistant-director of the department, she also attended the University of Sydney and obtained a diploma in public health (1954). By 1963, the year in which she resigned, she had established 21 central clinics, 528 village clinics, and 541 centres visited by mobile patrols.

Like others in her family, Refshauge embodied a 'progressive' tradition, working to improve society through professional skill and apolitical public service, despite disruptions caused by marriage, war and motherhood. Although racial segregation was explicit, and tacit distinctions also separated females from males, she quietly ignored the taboo on touching Melanesian men. Some Australians in New Guinea could not believe that women were doctors, and treated her as a nurse. Throughout her service, her salary was less than those of her male counterparts. Characteristically, she did not complain. She devoted time to introducing the Girl Guides and the Young Women's Christian Association to the Territory. In later years she did question the assumptions that underpinned sexual discrimination and steered women into feminine careers.

Refshauge knew that she was a pioneer in public health. She slowly recognized that she was also a role model for Papua New Guinean women. In 1964 she was appointed O.B.E. and awarded the Cilento medal for tropical medicine. That year she joined the Queensland Department of Health. She became deputy-director of maternal and child welfare in 1968 and retired in 1973. Survived by her son, she died on 25 July 1979 at Auchenflower, Brisbane, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Bell (ed), The Diseases and Health Services of Papua New Guinea (Port Moresby, 1973)
  • L. M. Hellstedt (ed), Women Physicians of the World (Washington, 1978)
  • E. Kettle, That They Might Live (priv pub, Syd, 1979)
  • D. Denoon, Public Health in Papua New Guinea (Cambridge, 1989)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 12 Jan 1980
  • J. Byford, Dealing with Death, Beginning with Birth: Women's Health and Childbirth on Misima Island, Papua New Guinea (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1999).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Donald Denoon, 'Refshauge, Joan Janet (1906–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bergin, Joan Janet

3 December, 1906
Armadale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


25 July, 1979 (aged 72)
Auchenflower, Brisbane, Queensland, 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.