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Amy Grace Wheaton (1898–1988)

by Nancy P. Bates

This article was published:

Amy Grace Wheaton (1898-1988), feminist and social-work educator, was born on 10 July 1898 at Gawler South, South Australia, eldest of six children of Ernest Conrad William Priest, miner, and his wife Emily Sarah Springett, née Carman. After attending Adelaide High School she completed two years of teacher training (1916-17) and was awarded a secondary teachers’ certificate. While teaching in various high schools, she studied part time at the University of Adelaide (BA, 1920; MA, 1923) with honours in a range of subjects.

On 5 February 1925 in the Stow Memorial Congregational Church, Adelaide, Amy married Ralph Douglas Wheaton (d.1976), a bank officer. Ralph was transferred to London shortly afterwards and in 1927 Amy enrolled as a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She attended advanced courses in sociology, social psychology, social philosophy and economics; her special interest was Australia’s immigration. Fluent in German and French, she travelled widely in Europe investigating national welfare systems. When Ralph’s bank foreshadowed a move to Melbourne, she abridged her studies and graduated B.Sc. (Econ.) in 1931, before their departure.

In Melbourne Wheaton was active in the Women Citizens’ Movement and the National Council of Women of Victoria. Hoping to consolidate her earlier work towards a Ph.D., she returned to England in 1934. Over fourteen months she travelled across Europe reviewing statutory and voluntary social services and became concerned by the politics and loss of freedom of association in Germany. In 1935 she attended the twelfth congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Istanbul.

Wheaton was invited to become honorary director of the new South Australian Board of Social Study and Training and in 1936 the family moved to Adelaide. Initially there were no financial resources, premises or library. Underlying her course design was a belief that professional skill involved more than knowledge and the acquisition of techniques and that it rested on ethical principles. Her social psychology and sociology lectures were particularly well regarded by students. In 1942 her two-year diploma course was accepted into the University of Adelaide and the department of social science was formed, with Wheaton as lecturer-in-charge. She was promoted to senior lecturer in 1955; in 1957 the department’s name was changed to the department of social studies and the diploma course was extended to three years.

On leave in 1950, Wheaton undertook a commission from the Australian government to report on the resettlement in Australia of displaced persons in the British and American zones of Germany. In Paris she led the Australian delegation at the fifth International Conference of Social Work and attended the International Committee of Schools of Social Work which followed. She was the only woman invited to the World Congress of Sociology in Zurich, the first congress of the newly formed International Sociological Association.

In 1955 Wheaton was awarded a Fulbright fellowship, but the university refused to release her. As compensation she was granted special leave in late 1957, prior to compulsory retirement at 60. She visited schools of social work and social service agencies in the United States of America and Canada, and then accepted an appointment from the welfare secretariat of the United Nations: from July 1958 to September 1962 she worked, with professorial status, as adviser and examiner in developing postgraduate studies in social work in the universities of the Punjab, West Pakistan, and Dacca, East Pakistan (Bangladesh).

Returning to Australia, Wheaton lectured on social aspects of town planning for a further decade in the faculty of architecture and town planning, University of Adelaide. She also lectured in sociology to social work students at the South Australian Institute of Technology (University of South Australia), where a building was named in her honour. Wheaton promoted the development of social work as a profession, seeking co-ordination, rather than competition. She was active in the formation of the Australian Association of Social Workers (life member 1965) and encouraged her graduates to form a South Australian branch. With the magistrate Reginald Coombe, she founded the South Australian Council of Social Service and was a vice-president and later life member.

Involved with the Australian Federation of Women Voters, Wheaton was president (1948-54) and vice-president (1954-57). Under her guidance the AFWV made submissions to the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in hearings for equal pay (1949, 1969) and the basic wage (1953). She was AFWV delegate to the annual Citizenship Convention (1952-54) and International Alliance of Women delegate to the Australian National Committee for the United Nations.

Wheaton was appointed MBE in 1939. Widely read, she had an apt quotation to illustrate any situation. She had a quirky sense of humour and delighted in debate and exchange of ideas, while the ash from her cigarette fell unheeded. Survived by her three sons, she died on 12 February 1988 in Adelaide and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lawrence, Professional Social Work in Australia (1965)
  • B. Dickey et al, Rations, Residences, Resources (1986)
  • Australian Social Work, vol 36, no 1, 1983, p 11, vol 41, no 3, 1988, p 36
  • Historical Studies, vol 20, no 81, 1983, p 574
  • J. Teasdale, interview with A. Wheaton (1980, SLSA)
  • Wheaton papers (University of Adelaide Library)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nancy P. Bates, 'Wheaton, Amy Grace (1898–1988)', 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

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