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Elizabeth Catherine (Betty) Usher (1911–1996)

by Gail Mulcair and Michael Kerrisk

This article was published online in 2020

Elizabeth Usher, 1960 [detail]

Elizabeth Usher, 1960 [detail]

University of Queensland Archives, 370152

Elizabeth Catherine Usher (1911–1996), schoolteacher, speech therapist, and university teacher, was born on 6 November 1911 at Mooroolbark, Victoria, second child of Victorian-born Thomas James Molphy, orchardist and later cheese factory manager, and his Queensland-born wife Ella Elizabeth, née Burton. By 1917 the family had moved to Queensland. After attending the State schools at Merrimac (1919–22), near Southport, and Lord John Swamp (later Wildash) (1923–25), near Warwick, Betty went to Warwick State High School, where in 1928 she was champion female athlete and the recipient of a scholarship to the Teachers’ Training College in Brisbane. She taught at State schools on the Darling Downs, finishing at Warwick Central (1936–42). In 1937 she obtained her private pilot’s licence and qualified as an associate in elocution of Trinity College of Music, London.

Immediately after World War II broke out in September 1939, Molphy was appointed as commandant of one of Warwick’s two Voluntary Aid Detachments. On 8 June 1942 she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force as a trainee officer. Two months later her fiancé, Flying Officer Leon Lyons, was killed in action over Europe. She performed cypher, administration, and rehabilitation duties in New South Wales and Queensland, rising in rank to section officer (1943). Her WAAAF appointment terminated on 1 February 1946 in Brisbane. That year she moved to Melbourne and began the second training course conducted by the Victorian Council of Speech Therapy. On graduating in 1948, she joined the staff of the Queensland government’s Psychiatric Clinic, Brisbane, headed by Dr Basil Stafford. The next year she became a licentiate (life member 1977) of the Australian College of Speech Therapists (Australian Association of Speech and Hearing, from 1975).

In 1952 Molphy travelled to England and secured an appointment as an assistant speech therapist with the Oxford United Hospitals. Her duties involved visits to the Headington Hill Hall Rehabilitation Centre for disabled soldiers. There, she met Kenneth Geoffrey (Smokey) Usher (d. 1988), a patient and a trainee French polisher, whom she married on 31 July 1954 at St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Cowley. Earlier, she had spent time in the United States of America as a clinical assistant to Professor Louis Di Carlo at Syracuse University, gaining experience in the rehabilitation of persons with hearing impairments and patients recovering after a laryngectomy. She worked for a period in the Middlesex Hospital, London. The Ushers sailed to Australia in 1956 and settled in Brisbane. While employed as full-time speech therapist at the Spastic Centre, New Farm, Elizabeth also attended patients in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane, and the Repatriation General Hospital, Greenslopes.

Concerned about the shortage of speech therapists in Queensland, Usher campaigned for the establishment of local training. In 1961 the University of Queensland introduced a diploma in speech therapy and commissioned her to develop the curriculum. Fifteen students comprised the inaugural class in 1962. Usher was appointed as part-time (December 1961) and full-time (January 1963) lecturer in speech therapy in the department of child health and would continue as head of the discipline when, with an expanded staff, it became a separate department (1970). In 1967 the course was upgraded to degree status, and in 1970 approval was obtained for a postgraduate honours program. The university had awarded Usher an honorary degree of bachelor of speech therapy the previous year and she graduated as BA in 1970. She was promoted to senior lecturer in 1971 and reader in 1973; from 1975 to her retirement in 1977, she was associate professor in the renamed department of speech and hearing.

The ‘mother of speech therapy in Queensland’ (Sun 1990, 13), Usher was also prominent in establishing the profession nationally. ‘Determination,’ ‘persistence,’ and ‘great charm’ had enabled her ‘masterfully [to] assemble’ a supporting ‘team of medical, psychology and education professors’ (Dornan pers. comm.), and thereby to initiate university training in the discipline in Australia. Her students recalled ‘a majestic, angular but graceful woman’ (Dornan pers. comm.), who, although somewhat reserved, devoted herself to their welfare and subsequent career development. In 1990 she was appointed AO. A bust by Peter Dornan was commissioned for the university’s speech pathology clinics. She died on 23 December 1996 in Brisbane and, following a Catholic funeral, was cremated. Money she bequeathed to the university’s Alumni Association was used to institute a travelling scholarship in her name. The Elizabeth Usher Memorial Lecture was established—from funds she left to the Queensland branch of Speech Pathology Australia—to be delivered at the SPA’s annual conference by a leading practitioner, as she had been in the pioneering years of her beloved profession.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • ACQ: Issues in Speech, Language and Hearing. ‘Pioneers.’ 1, no. 3 (1999): 13–15
  • Doherty, R. L., ed. A Medical School for Queensland. Spring Hill, Qld: Boolarong Publications, 1986
  • Dornan, Dimity. ‘Elizabeth Usher A.O. Pioneer Speech Therapist.’ In Hygeia's Daughters: Pioneer Women in the Health Sciences in Queensland, edited by Lesley Williams. Brisbane: The Editor, 1997
  • Dornan, Dimity. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, MOLPHY E C
  • Parker, Heather. Personal communication
  • Sun (Brisbane). ‘Talk About a Success!’ 21 May 1990, 13

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gail Mulcair and Michael Kerrisk, 'Usher, Elizabeth Catherine (Betty) (1911–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 18 April 2024.

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