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Wisewould, Gweneth (1884–1972)

by Farley Kelly

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Gweneth Wisewould (1884-1972), by unknown photographer

Gweneth Wisewould (1884-1972), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/5818

Gweneth Wisewould (1884-1972), medical practitioner, was born on 30 August 1884 at Brighton, Melbourne, only child of Australian-born parents Francis Wisewould, solicitor, and his wife Isabel Alice, née Field. Privately tutored at home, Gweneth graduated from the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1915). She was a resident at the Melbourne (1915-16) and Alfred (1916) hospitals, and senior resident (1917) at the Queen's Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital, before engaging in private practice at St Kilda and Elsternwick and in the city. Holding a number of honorary posts, she performed ear, nose and throat work and general surgery (1918-36) at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital for Women and Children; she also instructed medical students in anaesthetics (1918-29) at the Alfred Hospital.

Unconventional, artistic and mildly bohemian in outlook, Wisewould suffered from baseless allegations of professional incapacity and sexual impropriety with patients. Her practice declined and she decided to move to the country where she would be able to treat 'the patient as a whole individual'. In 1938 she set up at Trentham, 59 miles (95 km) north-west of Melbourne. She proceeded 'to make the little town my home and its people my heritage', serving as its doctor until the day of her death at the age of 87. Conditions in the small settlements of the region, and on the roads over the hilly terrain between them, demanded physical courage and resourcefulness. Her considerable surgical skills enabled her to deal with emergencies, whether she was obliged to operate in isolated cottages or in Trentham's tiny hospital she called her 'home from home'. She explained the singularity of her masculine apparel: 'you cannot do this work looking pretty'. Sturdily built and wrapped in an ancient greatcoat, she worked long hours and travelled tirelessly.

In 1971 Wisewould published a minor medico-social classic, Outpost, an account of her life and work in the country. She wrote with compassion, sensitivity and humour of her patients: townspeople, foundry-workers, timber-getters, farmers, graziers and itinerant potato diggers. 'Dirt never degraded here. Of class distinction there was none', she claimed, praising the community's strong work ethic. Her acute observation of social and environmental conditions and of local personalities, as well as her first-hand experience of the practical application of changing medical knowledge after World War II, gave the book enduring value as a social history of rural Victoria.

Wisewould lived alone after the death in 1953 of her lifelong friend Isabella Bell ('Ellabelle'), who had accompanied her to Trentham and who had required intensive nursing for advanced rheumatoid arthritis. Wisewould's nearest relations were a cousin and his daughter, and an 'adopted sister' Dorothy Bethune. Personally frugal but generous to others, she often omitted to charge for her services. In 1968 she donated $20,000 to the University of Melbourne to provide 'Truganini Scholarships' for Aboriginal students. She died on 20 January 1972 at Trentham and was buried, with Anglican rites, in the local cemetery, much mourned by the community she had served with 'gritty dedication' for so long. Her estate was sworn for probate at $93,462.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Priestley, Bush Nursing in Victoria (Melb, 1986)
  • I. Braybrook, Gweneth Wisewould Outpost Doctor (Harcourt, Vic, 1993)
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 June 1968, 21 Jan 1972
  • Sun News-Pictorial, 27 June 1968, 21 Jan 1972
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Jan 1972
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Feb 1972
  • 'Night Cap', ABC TV, 13 July 1971 (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • Wisewould papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Farley Kelly, 'Wisewould, Gweneth (1884–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wisewould-gweneth-12058/text21629, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 January 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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