Phyllis Cilento has, in recent years, been lauded as Queensland’s great female medical pioneer, a title that rightfully belongs to another woman. However, the true story of Queensland’s ground-breaking female medical pioneer is a tale of not one, but two magnificent women, Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford.
“This is the story of Lilian Violet Cooper, but it cannot be told without constant reference to Mary Josephine Bedford, as their lives were so intertwined. Together they contributed to the quality of life and the development of Brisbane. Their industry and dedication eased the way for many Queensland women to follow.”
Lesley M. Williams in No Easy Path: the Life and Times of Lilian Violet Cooper MD, FRACS (1861-1947), Australia’s First Woman Surgeon.
Early life in England
Despite paying for an expensive private education for their daughter, Lilian Cooper’s parents dismissed her ambition to study medicine as a girlish fantasy. But Lilian was nothing if not determined — very determined. All her life. She held onto her ambition, though without any clear path to achieving it.
Then she made a friend, Josephine Bedford, a young woman visiting her uncle, the Canon of nearby Rochester Cathedral. Back home in Notting Hill, Josephine sometimes read a newspaper column in which a female doctor answered reader’s medical questions. Miss Josephine Bedford wrote to the paper seeking a remedy for freckles.
Then, as a seeming afterthought, she asked how a woman should go about studying medicine.
The doctor replied. The two friends entered university. Lilian studied medicine while Josephine took an arts degree. Dr. Cooper worked in England for a short while but then accepted a position in Brisbane.
Rosamund Siemon suggests in The Mayne Inheritance that Lilian possibly became acquainted with Dr. James Mayne who was in England at the time. From a wealthy Brisbane family, the philanthropic and gay Dr. Mayne along with his sister Mary later donated 81 hectares of land for the construction of Queensland University.
They also donated Brisbane Arcade to the university. Their family home Moorlands stands today on the grounds of the Wesley Hospital.
Queensland’s first Lady Doctor
Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford arrived in Brisbane in 1891. After first working as an assistant to Dr. Booth in South Brisbane, Lilian set up her own practice at The Mansions in George Street. Local male doctors did not take kindly to the female interloper.
They did not speak to Queensland’s first Lady Doctor and in fact, refused to discuss cases with her. Further, they turned away patients she referred, and would not administer anaesthetic when she performed surgery.
Jo later said that the male doctors made it abundantly clear a woman’s place was in the home.
Professional isolation and prejudice did not deter Dr. Cooper. Besides, her patients loved her, and whatever other doctors said, her practice thrived.
A common innuendo thrown at Lilian hinted at what was obvious to anyone with eyes to see. The unchivalrous gentlemen medicos declared that performing a man’s job ‘unsexed’ a woman. In contrast to Jo’s petite prettiness, Lilian was unashamedly and defiantly butch.
‘A tall mannish woman’
Sir Clarence Leggett, a great admirer of Lilian’s, and the grand old man of Queensland medical history remembered her in 1974 as ‘a tall mannish woman’. She had a strong jaw, angular features and dressed severely.
And she lived with another woman. Neither took an interest in men.
Sir Clarence laughed off the idea that Lilian might ever marry as “a very unlikely possibility… her antagonism to men eventually degenerated into mere contempt.”
Contrary to the conventions of the time, Lilian refused to play the damsel in distress. She never required the assistance of a man. Anything they could do, she could do better.
She rode a pushbike on her rounds in town. For more remote house calls, she drove herself in a horse and buggy, as far as sixty miles into the bush. Later she was one of the first Queensland women to own and drive a car. When it broke down, she repaired it herself.
Her car was dubbed The Yellow Peril by Brisbanites, ‘yellow’ for its colour, and ‘peril’ for Lilian’s driving. She was a lead foot, once fined £3 for roaring down Queen St at over twice the speed limit. Seventeen miles per hour!
She once knocked over a jaywalker in Petrie Bight, but all witnesses including Arthur McLean, the slightly gravel-rashed pedestrian, agreed it was his own fault.
Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford
Other than the “unsexed” comment, the subject of lesbianism never came up publicly. The public accepted the pair as a couple, without any comment. People perhaps saw, or chose to see, the two as confirmed spinsters.
The newspapers documented Dr. Cooper’s and Miss Bedford’s’ holidays, charity work, social outings, and visitors just as they did for any ‘Dr. and Mrs. So and So.’
“Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Bedford have gone on a three-week visit to Sydney,” advised the Queenslander in 1898.
In 1913, the Brisbane Courier reported, “Dr. Helen Mayo and Miss Stilling, Adelaide, are the guests of Dr. Cooper and Miss Bedford.”
At a dinner for the women in 1916 Parliamentarian J.J. Kingsbury, according to the Daily Standard, “paid a great tribute to Miss Bedford, who he described as ‘Dr. Lilian Cooper’s right-hand man.’”
In 1931, the Telegraph told its readers, “Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Bedford, whose home at Kangaroo Point is amongst the most interesting ‘woman’s nest’ in Brisbane, were chums in their school days in England. They are still inseparable pals.”
Hundreds of such mentions are strewn through decades of Queensland newspapers. Of course, lesbianism was not a fit matter for discussion, though the word sometimes occurred in print, usually referring to inhabitants of the island of Lesbos.
Sometimes however the word demonstrated the innocence, or ignorance or the writer. The editor of the Gympie Times betrayed his lack of worldliness in 1872. He fretted in print about the potential for trouble if the wives of indentured South Sea Islanders accompanied their menfolk to Queensland.
“It is to be feared that the seductive powers of the dusky Lesbians will corrupt our ingenuous youth.”
He went on to worry about the effect on families when bullockies ran off with these alluring and wicked Polynesian lesbians.
And then there’s the delightfully innocent Miss Jane Harrison. Sweet Jane shared her knowledge of ancient history with the Queenslander in 1888.
“In olden days, Lesbian women had their clubs and places of meeting.”
Jane suggested “the establishing of similar institutions for those of our time.”
Such was the public ignorance of even the existence of lesbianism at the time. Indeed in 1921, when someone suggested including lesbianism in the criminal code, Lord Desart, Chief Crown Prosecutor during the trial of Oscar Wilde scoffed at the idea.
“You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offense, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it. I think it is a very great mischief.”
Despite what anyone privately thought of them, or quietly whispered, Lilian and Jo took a prominent and public role in the life of the state. They became leading Brisbane citizens.
The Hospital for Sick Children
Shortly after their arrival in Brisbane, Lilian and Jo joined the committee of the Hospital for Sick Children.
Mary McConnel, a wealthy grazier’s wife, became concerned in the 1870s about high infant mortality rates in Queensland. She discovered the Brisbane General Hospital did not cater for children under five. The doctors believed young children were better off at home with their mothers.
Mary organised a committee of fellow concerned women. She dedicated fifteen years of her life to establishing the children’s hospital and raising funds for it, overcoming huge obstacles on the way.
Lilian attended the 1891 annual general meeting of the hospital committee a month after receiving her registration to practice as a doctor in Queensland. That began an association that lasted over 50 years until her retirement.
She worked for the hospital on an honorary basis, without payment. Jo also volunteered, working with a separate committee of women who raised funds to keep the hospital operating.
In 1902 when illness struck down the hospital staff, Lilian packed a few clothes and moved in, filling in for the sick staff until they recovered.
A deeply religious woman, Mary McConnel nevertheless got on well with Lilian and Jo. In 1905 she joined them and other progressive local women at a meeting to form the Queensland branch of the National Council of Women.
By this time Jo was well known for her work on the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty. Initially concerned with cruelty to both children and animals, the two arms later became independent entities. Jo became particularly interested in bettering the opportunities for Brisbane children. She set to work fund-raising to establish children’s playgrounds throughout the city.
The Mater Misericordiae Hospital
In 1906, the Sisters of Mercy opened the first Mater Misericordiae Hospital at North Quay. Lilian, as a proponent of professionally trained nursing staff, was a little contemptuous of the venture. She regarded the Sisters as well-intentioned but ineffective amateurs.
However, she grew to appreciate the sisters while visiting a patient there. Her association with the hospital lasted until her retirement.
When the Sisters of Mercy opened their new hospital in South Brisbane in 1910, they invited Lilian to join the Medical Board. In appreciation of her work, on her birthday, they decorated Dr. Lilian Violet Cooper’s surgical ward with lilies and violets in tribute.
In addition to her skill as a doctor, her hard work and generous philanthropy, Lilian Cooper is also remembered for her formidable skill with the English language. She swore like a trooper.
Sister Gertrude Mary of the Sisters of Mercy told author Lesley M. Williams about Lilian swearing at a nun during surgery.
After the operation Sister Gertrude reprimanded the doctor for her language.
“You should not have spoken to Sister Gervase like that. You swore at her.”
“I did not,” said Lilian. She demanded the nun repeat the words she supposedly used. Unable to use such language herself, the good sister cheerfully agreed Lilian had not sworn after all.
World War One
During the first world war, neither the British War Office nor the Australian Army welcomed the services of female doctors. One female doctor who applied to serve in England received a letter from an official which clearly spelled out the official attitude.
“My good lady, go home and sit still.”
At the age of 55, Lilian decided she wanted to help the war effort. She and Jo sailed to Europe at their own expense. They volunteered for the Scottish Women’s Hospital near the frontlines in Macedonia. The team Lilian worked with amputated ten limbs in just two days and performed 160 operations in their first few weeks in the field.
Josephine ran the ambulance unit and maintained the cars herself. Co-workers nicknamed her Miss Spare Parts for her constant searching for parts to repair the vehicles. Wounded men were brought from the battlefront on the backs of donkeys to a staging post. The female ambulance drivers then ferried the patients down a perilous mountain dirt track, covered with potholes and rocks.
The 28-mile trip featured numerous hairpin bends. Those women drove the round trip four or five times a day.
The doctor in charge of the hospital unit wrote, “Dr. Cooper is so fearfully indiscreet in some of her public remarks,” referring to the good doctor’s renowned penchant for obscenities.
“Dr. Cooper and Miss Bedford are both in our advance outpost. I miss them both very much, but they are very happy out there together.”
Return to Brisbane
After a year’s service at the front, suffering from illness and exhausted by the long days and nights, the two women returned to Brisbane. They came home with Serbian medals for their service. Josephine marched in Brisbane’s 1918 Anzac Day Parade wearing her medal.
Lilian, despite her professional confidence, her devotion to public service, and her swearing, was basically quite shy. She stood on the footpath and applauded as she watched Jo march by.
On their return to Brisbane, Lilian renewed her work at both the Hospital for Sick Children and the Mater Hospital. She presented papers and advocated for better sanitation and drainage in Brisbane and an improved water supply.
Josephine Bedford became a founding member of the Playground and Recreation Association. The Association raised funds for free supervised playgrounds and children’s libraries. One of the early playgrounds, established at Spring Hill in the 1920s, remains in use today. In 1959, civic authorities renamed that park Bedford Park in commemoration of Josephine.
She also gave her time to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, the National Council of Women and the Women’s Electoral League, in addition to raising funds for Hospital for Sick Children.
Lilian served on numerous committees. She was a foundation member of both the RACQ and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. In 1929 when the state’s female doctors banded together to form the Queensland Medical Women’s Society, the members unanimously proposed Lilian, the state’s great female medical pioneer, as President.
She graciously declined the honour, already busy with numerous other projects, and Phyllis Cilento, wife of the Director of Tropical Hygiene then nominated for the position.
Old St Mary’s
In 1926, Lilian bought a house called Old St Mary’s in Main Street, Kangaroo Point. She and Josephine lived there for the remainder of their lives. The house was a centre of social activity with the two women holding numerous garden parties and fetes in the grounds to raise money for children’s causes.
Lilian retired in 1941 at the age of 80 and died a week after her 86th birthday in 1947. She bequeathed most of her estate to Josephine Bedford.
The women wanted to contribute to solving the dire lack of palliative care in Brisbane. Therefore, when Josephine died, she left Old St Mary’s to the Sisters of Charity for the construction of the Mt Olivet, now St Vincent’s, Hospital.
St Mary’s Church, Kangaroo Point features a beautiful stained-glass window commissioned by Jo in Lilian’s honour.
Also in the church: Lilian’s WWI medal of St Sava embroidered into the altar frontal.
Lil and Jo
Dr. Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford moved half a world from home to live together in Brisbane. They spent their entire adult lives together.
The loving couple voluntarily served their adopted homeland at the war front, together.
They defied the norms of the time refusing to be subservient to, or dependent, on men.
Lilian dressed as she pleased, in no-nonsense clothes that reflected her personality. If others found that unfeminine, so be it.
She broke glass ceilings all her life.
The two women loudly and proudly identified as a couple against every established norm of their era. In a final defiant declaration, they chose to spend eternity together.
They share a single grave in Toowong Cemetery. One of the inscriptions on their tombstone reads, “They are thine, O Lord, Thou lover of souls.”
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