Elsie Dalyell

Full name:
Dr Elsie Jean Dalyell, OBE


Pathologist, Teacher
Sydney Girls High School, University of Sydney
Decorations/ commendations:
Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
World War I 1914-1918
Military event:
Serbian Campaign 1914-1915
Lady Wimborne's Serbian Relief Fund unit,Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service unit,Royal Army Medical Corps

Elsie Dalyell was born in Newtown in Sydney in 1881. She attended Sydney Girls High School after which she became a student-teacher while studying arts and science at the University of Sydney. She resigned from teaching in 1906 and transferred to medicine, graduating with first-class honours in 1910.

Dalyell worked as a demonstrator in pathology at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. She was the first female on the full-time medical school staff. In 1912, she won the Beit Fellowship, the first woman to earn this distinction in New South Wales. With fellowship funds, she travelled to London, to study gastroenteritis in infants with the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine.

After World War I began, Dalyell joined the Lady Wimborne's Serbian Relief Fund unit. The unit went to Skopje (in modern-day North Macedonia) to help with the 1915 typhus epidemic.

In Skopje, Dalyell worked in the fever hospital, more than 1 mile from the town's main hospital. She wrote of her experience at some length:

Our building was meant for a barracks, but was hastily utilised for a hospital. The dining room is a clean bare cellar with a table and the inevitable packing cases as chairs. My own room (the last doctor in it had typhus) contains my bed, a packing case... my cabin trunk and a canvas chair. We have no sitting-room... I have over one hundred patients who suffer from every imaginable fever – typhus, typhoid, scarlet, diptheria, and a dozen others not yet classified. The suffering of the sick and wounded and the appalling waste of life here are beyond description, but the hospitals are getting typhus under control. Four of our staff have typhus and all are recovering, but we are very shorthanded. Our staff consists of two men doctors and myself, and we feel that we need the strength of ten to get through the day's work. For the wards I wear a shapeless bag-like garment devised by myself. It has feet and legs and ties round the neck. Then I have a close white cap, a face mask, rubber gloves and boots. Yesterday I discharged a veteran Servian (Serbian) soldier, the scarred hero of a hundred fights and could find him no clothes but a Servian military coat and a split skirt made in London. He was thankful for even those, and with the addition of a blanket for overcoat set out for his home... The Servian soldiers are simply splendid, fearless and clever, and of fine physique... In spite of the fine situation, clear air, brilliant blue skies, with glorious snow-capped mountains in the distance, the terrible problem here is one of sanitation... in this fever-ridden country owing to the lack of sewage systems.... I must run and help look after 104 fresh patients. Some will have to go on the floor. Thank goodness the nurses are trained and skilful, and the orderlies are a credit to their colleges.

In 1916, Dalyell joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service unit in France. Later on, she enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Malta and then in Salonika as a bacteriologist with No 63 General Hospital. Press reports suggested that she was the first female to hold such a role.

Dalyell remained in Salonika until July 1919. Then she joined the army of occupation in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). In Constantinople, she worked to help deal with a cholera outbreak.

In June 1919, Dalyell was appointed Order of the British Empire (OBE). She had also been twice mentioned in dispatches during the war.

Dalyell was sent to Vienna in August 1919 to work as a senior clinician in a research team studying deficiency diseases in children. There she witnessed terrible conditions. She noted that the ‘physical deterioration of young children, owing to starvation, is deplorable.'

Dr Dalyell returned to Australia in 1923 where she spent many years working for the Department of Public Health. She died at home in November 1948.

Last updated: 18 November 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Elsie Jean Dalyell, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 6 February 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/biographies/elsie-jean-dalyell
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