Angels of War: Remembering Australian Army Nurses

Mary de Garis

Mary de Garis was one of very few women in Australia at the beginning of World War I that had earned qualifications as a doctor, rather than a nurse. She had enrolled at the University of Melbourne in 1900, being one of only 31 women at the time to do so.

Header image: Portrait of Mary de Garis. Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1914, she was the resident surgeon of Tibooburra, New South Wales. Mary had been engaged to Colin Thomson, a local farmer, for just 10 days before news of the war reached them. Whilst Mary knew of the medical devastation that was likely to arise from wartime, she also noted that there was opportunity amongst the chaos.

In a letter from this time, she stated that “if the war continues, the need for doctors will be so great that women will have a chance of being accepted and given military status for it.”

Both Mary and her partner Colin enlisted in the war. Yet, while Colin was accepted into the ranks and sent to Gallipoli, Mary’s enlistment for the Australian Army Medical Corps was turned down. Indeed, no female doctors would be appointed in the Australian Army until 1943. This forced Mary to find other means of supporting her country and it’s allies in the war. In June 1916, Mary sailed for London, where she worked at a hospital in the hopes that if her partner had been injured he would be sent to England for recovery. However, in August- just two months after her arrival- she learnt that Colin had passed away.

Mary did not stop here, and despite her grief continued on determinedly to find a means of aiding the war efforts. She became a member of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), founded with the intent of forming female-driven mobile medical units. Similar to Mary’s individual case, they had been declined when offering their services to the British military, but in an optimistic turn of events would go on to be accepted by other allied forces from different countries. The SWH went on to establish 14 mobile hospitals by the battlefields across Europe, finally allowing Mary and other women the leadership opportunities they had fought so hard to gain.

Three medals, belonging to Sister Trestrail. The medal of interest is shaped as a four point star, with a wreath and crossed swords on the face of it, and a crown on the upper point. The text reads: “AUG 1914 NOV”.
1914 Star Medal (left), awarded to Sister Trestrail, who had to fight for this recognition. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

Women were able to work in any profession involved with these hospitals established by the SWH, and Mary chose to continue her work as a surgeon, performing numerous difficult and specialist operations throughout the war. She continued to work and serve those on the battlefield to the end of World War I in 1918, respected by her colleagues and friends as a woman of strong character and determination. After the war ended, Mary de Garis was awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava III class, and two British medals for her work and service. She was not recognised in Australia at this time for her efforts.

Mary de Garis was a pioneer of her time, and a leader whose perseverance in the face of inequality is deserving of true respect. After the war, Mary returned to Australia and worked at the Geelong Hospital, eventually being appointed as the head of the maternity ward there, which she had lobbied for the commission of.

Mary would not forget the impact she and her fellow practitioners had throughout the war. In a letter of thanks to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Mary 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.”