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Seager, Joyce Debenham (Joy) (1899–1991)

by Alexandra Mary Readman

This article was published online in 2014

Joyce Debenham Seager (1899-1991), medical practitioner, was born on 20 September 1899 at Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, youngest of three daughters of Theodore Stephen Tearne, music teacher, and his wife Maude Mary, née Lee. The family migrated to Australia in 1907 and two years later Theodore was appointed superintendent of music in the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction. Joy was educated at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar and Sydney Girls’ High schools, and won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, 1924). After graduation she worked in hospitals in Sydney and at Young. In January 1925 she responded to an urgent requirement for a doctor at Kingscote, on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.

There was no hospital on the island and Joy was the sole medical practitioner. In the early months she had no access to a car or telephone and rode a horse over rough bush tracks to reach rural patients. She also acted as pharmacist and dentist at her surgery, a tiny metal shed. On 29 July 1925 at St Paul’s Church of England, Adelaide, she married Harold William Hastings Seager (d. 1976), a sheep farmer who had been a major in the Australian Imperial Force.

 The Seagers lived on a property at Hawks Nest, twenty-six miles (42 km) from Kingscote. They installed a telephone and Joy, now equipped with a car, consulted at Kingscote two days a week as well as responding to emergencies all over the island. She set up a temporary hospital at Kingscote until a permanent one opened in 1930. Her resourcefulness and sense of humour were often called upon. On one occasion, caught in the bush without her medical bag, she pulled hairs from a horse’s tail, sterilised them, and used them to stitch a gash in a man’s leg.

In 1945 the Seagers moved to Kingston, on the mainland in the State’s south-east, Hal taking up a new grazing property. A diphtheria epidemic claimed Joy’s immediate attention. Again, she was the only doctor in the area and, once more, she established a hospital in difficult circumstances, with few facilities or trained staff. She was one of the first in South Australia to use penicillin. The family moved again in 1950 to a merino stud at Mount Pleasant. From there Seager practised variously in Adelaide and, with the school medical service, in the country. Throughout her career she determinedly organised the immunisation of children against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and polio, travelling widely to schools and isolated farming communities.

Seager and her husband, a veteran of Gallipoli, were part of a large contingent which in 1965 travelled by sea from Athens, via several Mediterranean ports, to the peninsula for the fiftieth anniversary of the landing. When many of the old soldiers became ill on the voyage, Seager treated them and bought drugs in Cairo and Beirut to supplement the ship’s meagre supplies. She was appointed MBE (1966) for her care of ex-servicemen.

On 8 January 1977 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Tintinara, Seager married Stanley Charles Henniker, a grazier.  Her memoir, Kangaroo Island Doctor (1980), was later the basis for a two-part television drama, Shadows of the Heart. At age eighty-three she was described as ‘small, merry-eyed and bubbling with vitality’ (Haywood 1982, 12). Survived by her son and one of her two daughters, she died on 7 September 1991 at Mount Pleasant and her ashes were scattered on the family farm.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Gregory, Julie. ‘All in a Day’s Work for the Island Doctor.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 December 1980, 1
  • Haywood, Rose. ‘The Island Doctor Comes Ashore.’ South Australian Magazine (Port Adelaide), October 1982, 12-13
  • Inglis, Ken. ‘Gallipoli Pilgrimage 1965.’ Journal of the Australian War Memorial 18 (April 1991): 20-27
  • Seager, Joy. Kangaroo Island Doctor. Adelaide: Rigby, 1980
  • Seager, Michael. Personal communication with author
  • South Australian Medical Women’s Society. The Hands of a Woman. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 1994
  • Villis, Rhonda, and Nancy Smith. Interview by Joan Durdin, 11 March 1985. Transcript. State Library of South Australia.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alexandra Mary Readman, 'Seager, Joyce Debenham (Joy) (1899–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/seager-joyce-debenham-joy-14607/text25736, published online 2014, accessed online 22 January 2021.

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