Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Smith (1909–1989)

by Margaret Allen

This article was published:

SMITH, MARY (1909-1989), psychologist, was born on 22 November 1909, probably at Liverpool, England, elder child of Welsh-born David Smith, storeman, and his wife Wilhelmina Fletcher, née McLean. In South Australia from 1911, Mary lived with her family in the working-class suburbs of Birkenhead and Largs Bay North. She attended a Montessori infants’ school before going largely to state schools, and completed her secondary education at Adelaide High School in 1927. Graduating in arts from the University of Adelaide (BA, 1930; MA, 1932), she trained as a schoolteacher. She undertook ‘advanced reading and practical study’ under Dr Constance Davey on ‘the problem child’, carried out practical work with school children and worked as an honorary probation officer with the Children’s Court. In 1938, aided by a free passage, she travelled to England and started doctoral research in psychology under T. H. Pear at the Victoria University of Manchester, on ‘the mental readjustment of the problem child’. She also had a position at the local juvenile court.

With her studies disrupted by the outbreak of World War II, Smith returned to Adelaide in 1940 and became assistant-psychologist in the South Australian Education Department. She succeeded Davey as departmental psychologist in 1942, but resigned in 1944 after a ‘stormy period’ during which she campaigned, as a member of the League of Women Voters of South Australia, for better salaries for women teachers. In private practice in 1944-53, she worked with disturbed children and became a household name for her column ‘You and Your Child’, which appeared in the Sunday Mail from 1944 to 1969. Winning the Catherine Helen Spence scholarship in 1945, she took up a two-year research fellowship at the Victoria University of Manchester medical school, where she studied ‘modern trends in child psychology and work with adolescents’. Back in South Australia, in the 1949 Federal election she ran unsuccessfully as an Independent Senate candidate.

In 1953 Smith was appointed the first full-time psychologist in the department of child psychiatry, Adelaide Children’s Hospital, where she had success with direct-play therapy. From 1965 to 1974, when she retired, she worked with the guidance and special education branch of the Education Department. Interested in adult education, for twenty-four years she ran classes on child development for the Workers’ Educational Association of South Australia. Although towards the end of her professional life her more mentalistic approach was seen as dated compared with the new behaviourist theories, she was considered a pioneering psychologist in South Australia.

Smith had a lively disposition and was said to be ‘addicted’ to Jane Austen, James Thurber and the New Yorker. She followed the Port Adelaide Australian rules football team and drove an MG sports car. A member of the South Australian branch of the British Psychological Society (Australian Psychological Society from 1966), she was active in a number of community organisations, serving in 1950-51 as president of the Young Women’s Christian Association of Adelaide. Involved with the South Australian Council of Social Service (1947-74) and with the South Australian Women Graduates Association for many years, she was made a life member of both. Smith died aged 80 on 25 November 1989 in her North Adelaide home and was buried in North Road cemetery. Obituarists remembered her as providing ‘a role model for professional women’ and for having ‘a courageous forthrightness and profound concern over professional and ethical issues’.

Select Bibliography

  • Greater Than Their Knowing (1986)
  • Forceps: Adelaide Children’s Hospital Staff Journal, July 1960, p 2
  • Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, Mar 1990, p 27
  • I. John, interview with Mary Smith (typescript, 1980, University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Mary Smith, correspondence files and reminiscences (University of Adelaide Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Allen, 'Smith, Mary (1909–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 November, 1909
Liverpool, England


25 November, 1989 (aged 80)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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