Mary De Garis
Mary De Garis was born in Charlton, Victoria in 1881. She was educated at the Methodist Ladies' College in Melbourne where she was dux of her year in 1898. In 1900, she enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne and in 1904 was awarded a Bachelor of Medicine, and a Bachelor of Surgery in 1905. In 1907, she was awarded a doctorate of medicine.
De Garis's first medical posting was to Muttaburra in outback Queensland, then in 1908-1909 she travelled to the United Kingdom and the United States on a 14-month trip to gain professional experience.
After returning to Melbourne, De Garis worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital and established a private practice. In 1911, she moved to the far western New South Wales town of Tibooburra where she worked at the local hospital until 1915.
De Garis's fiancé, Colin Thomson, who she met in Tibooburra, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in January 1915. When De Garis tried to follow him into the army by enlisting in the Australian Army Medical Corps, she was rejected. The Corps did not accept female doctors, likewise, the British Army who also rejected her after she made her own way to England, a revolver packed in her luggage. She then spent 5 months working at the Manor Hospital in London.
After Thomson was killed at Pozieres in August 1916, De Garis joined the Scottish Women's Hospital and was posted to the 'America' Unit at Ostrovo in Macedonia. She quickly earning the staffs' respect:
You could see her every morning going over the hospital area and inspecting some swamps, which she formally ordered to be levelled with earth. A few minutes after, you see her in a hospital circle, and so on until the visit of the patients commences. There is no nook in a hospital where she does not see it, or looks into, with the assistance of her true and worthy Sisters, who with motherly care look for Serbian soldiers … (on) the morning visit of the patients … She steps into her ward, and with a mild and courteous tone goes to every patient … she understands everything the soldiers tell her in Serbian … If a new patient comes to the Hospital, she never lets him wait five minutes unless she examines him.
De Garis served as a surgeon and Chief Medical Officer in the 200-bed hospital for 14 months, once writing:
A unique snapshot shows five patients in my ward – two Serbs (one a plating of the leg, the other a wound of the hand), one Frenchman (operated for appendicitis), a Turk (with both eyeballs excised and injury to the hand), and a Canadian (both of whose hips had been dislocated).
On occasion, De Garis had to perform such surgeries under enemy fire. Miles Franklin, the Australian author who also served at Salonika, remembered:
Once, in the earlier days of the Unit, while a serious operation was proceeding in the little operating tent of the advanced dressing station, the bombs began to rain. The men assistants promptly disappeared to their funk holes, but Doctor continued her operation, occasionally remarking very politely to the Sister who stayed with her, that she was sorry, she supposed Sister would like to have a look at what was going on outside, but the patient had to be attended to or he would bleed to death.
Throughout her time on the Salonika front, as she worked long hours in the hospital, De Garis was also mourning the loss of her fiancé, Colin. She wrote to her twin sister Bessie:
I have lost the terrible wearing anxiety about Colin that nearly sent me mad before I left Melbourne – there is no suspense now … I have to keep mind and fingers occupied all the time, otherwise I would cry most of the time … if possible, in future, I'll not care greatly about anything.
If her work and the burden of grief wore at De Garis, so too did the climate. In the harsh winters on the Salonika front, De Garis and other woman surgeons wore fur coats, even while operating on the wounded, and along with every other member of the staff at Ostrovo had to contend with snow, storms, wasps, malaria, typhoid, dysentery and pneumonia.
The war left her exhausted and after it ended, she took 6 weeks to recover from influenza in Rome on her way back to England.
While she awaited transport to Australia, De Garis went to Edinburgh, where the Scottish Women's Hospitals presented her with a gold watch. In a letter of thanks, she wrote:
I shall always remember my association with the Scottish Women's Hospitals with pleasure. Practical experience has convinced me that women run things very well, making me a more ardent feminist than ever.
For her time in Salonika, she had been awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava III class.
After the war, De Garis settled in Geelong where she made a major contribution to the practice of obstetrics and lobbied for the establishment of a maternity ward at Geelong Hospital. When the ward was commissioned in 1931, she was appointed head of the unit. De Garis practised medicine until 1960 when she was 79.
Mary De Garis died in Geelong in 1963.