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Woodhill, Joan Mary (1912–1990)

by Diana Brown

This article was published:

Joan Mary Woodhill (1912-1990), dietitian, was born on 5 May 1912 at Camden, New South Wales, youngest of three children of New South Wales-born Frank Leslie Woodhill, storekeeper, and his wife Maria Louise, née Pepper, born in Tasmania. After Joan’s father died in 1918, her mother sold the family business and moved to Gordon, Sydney. Joan received her secondary education (1925-29) at Ravenswood Methodist Ladies’ College, Gordon, and studied agricultural science at the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1934). Unable to find suitable work in that field, in 1937 Woodhill became the first student of dietetics at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. On completing an internship in 1938, she was appointed assistant-dietitian there. In 1939 she became a foundation member and secretary of the New South Wales Dietetic Association.

With the help of a travel grant from the Carnegie Corporation, Woodhill researched educational methods in nutrition in hospitals in Britain and the United States of America in 1939. While in New York she took courses at Columbia University towards a master’s degree. On her return in January 1940 Woodhill became first assistant dietitian at RPAH, where she taught therapeutic dietetics to student dietitians, nurses and patients, and also conducted research. In June she was appointed chief dietitian, the first Australian to hold this post. A member (1942) of the nutrition committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, as the consumer’s representative for the National Council of Women, she also served on the nutrition advisory committee of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Woodhill returned to the USA to complete her degree at the University of Minnesota (M.Sc., 1947), thereafter working towards a doctorate on maternal and infant nutrition at Harvard University (SD, 1951). Upon the establishment of the Australian Dietetic Council in 1950, she was elected its first chairman.

Back in Australia, Woodhill was the tutor-dietitian at Royal Newcastle Hospital from 1952 to 1962, embarking on a study of obesity and its treatment. She was a member (1955-61) of the New South Wales State Nutrition Committee. At the behest of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, she spent a few months in Baghdad in 1960, training Iraqi women to conduct food surveys.

In 1962-64 Woodhill was a consultant dietitian and nutrition research officer in the department of medicine, University of New South Wales, located at Prince Henry Hospital. She was then appointed research biochemist in the department of biomedicine, and was later (1965-69) a research nutritionist there. Her main project was a long-term research study of diet, cholesterol and heart disease with Professor Ralph Blacket. The division of nutrition and dietetics was established in 1970, with Woodhill as its director and later chairman. During the 1970s Woodhill completed research on Aboriginal nutrition and on an Australian Feingold diet for treatment of hyperactivity. She published numerous articles in scientific and medical journals.

Woodhill was chairman of the organising committee for the international congress of dietetics in Sydney in 1977. Retiring that year, she became an inaugural councillor (1979-80) of the Australian Nutrition Foundation. Always eager to learn, Woodhill was interested in new fields of research and methodology, while concerned about high scientific standards. She was resourceful in obtaining private-sector funding for projects. Appointed OBE in 1973, she was made an honorary life member of the Dietitians Association of Australia in 1983. Woodhill never married. She died on 12 December 1990 at St Leonards and was cremated. Prizes and a lecture in her name commemorate her.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Nash, The History of Dietetics in Australia (1989)
  • S. Marsden, The Royal: A Castle Grand, a Purpose Noble, a History of the Royal Newcastle Hospital 1817-2005 (2005)
  • RPA, June 1940, p 27, June 1942, p 18
  • Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol 48, no 1, 1991, p 34
  • P. Johnson, interview with J. and J. Woodhill (typescript, 1982, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Diana Brown, 'Woodhill, Joan Mary (1912–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 May 2022.

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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