Dr Gweneth Wisewould
Dr Gweneth Wisewould, filmed and produced in 2016.
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Way Back When - Consulting Historians Tiny Empire Collective
Dr Gweneth Wisewould was an interesting woman. Firstly, she was a doctor at a time when women were not expected or even encouraged to have a profession. Secondly, she was something of an eccentric. In 1938 she moved to Trentham to become the local doctor. She was 57. We talked to Ian Braybrook about Dr Gwen, her life and what makes her so fascinating.
Ian Braybrook: She was one of very few women to have studied medicine back in those days. She graduated back in 1915, which is pretty amazing. She was a unique person. Never will there be another Doctor Gwen, never.
There’s so much to tell you about Gwen. She came from a very wealthy family. Wisewould solicitors, Frank Wisewould was her father. Her mother was from Tasmania, one of the Fields from Westbury, Tasmania, very, very wealthy people, very influential people.
How she ever finished up in this little town is just an amazing story. 1938 she came here when she was about 57 years old. When most people are thinking about retiring, she and Ella her companion, made their home here in Trentham.
She fell foul of Dame Mabel Brooks who actually ran the Queen Victoria Hospital. Dame Mabel ruled it with a fist of iron, and she didn’t like Gwen because of Gwen’s bohemian ways. She mixed with the arty, farty people of St Kilda. She lived in St Kilda and she used to just outrage Dame Mabel Brooks because of all the wild parties she used to have. Mixing with all these bohemians, artists and things. She rode a motorbike! Would you believe that? A female doctor which is rare anyway, riding a motorbike on her rounds in Melbourne.
This sort of stuff you know. Dame Mabel Brooks had her in the gun and she found a reason, I’m not really sure exactly what happened, but she had her in the gun and she found a reason to sack her. She was fired from the Queen Victoria Hospital. That meant the end of her career in Melbourne. To be sacked from the Queen Victoria, end of question. So that’s why she came to Trentham.
Instead of packing it in, and she thought about taking up the brush, she was an artist, a very skilled artist too. She thought about that but no decided she would come to Trentham and set up a practice here.
When she came to Trentham, she looked around and thought this is a cold place, so she dressed appropriately. She wore men’s clothes. Men’s boots, men’s trousers, men’s overcoats. She dressed like a male. That sort of shocked the people in Trentham. It was an ultra conservative town when she arrived here in 1938, this town was one of the most conservative town’s in Australia.
Fortunately for her, there was a baby boom going on at this time and the first few weeks she was here she delivered umpteen babies and established herself as a competent physician. The people of Trentham accepted her immediately, despite the fact that she was a bit strange.
She used to drive a pick up truck, big old dodge pick up truck. And she carried a door in the back of it, a house door – that was the stretcher she carted around. She made her way through this place in the winter – it was pretty fierce back then. Mud roads, they were not made and she travelled all around this district looking after the sick. She had rooms down at Blackwood which is about 8km down the road and the road between here and there was pretty rugged. So she did all that. And she’d sort of go til she dropped. People would see her on the side of the road, asleep, dead to the world because she just kept going and going.
She used to operate there at the hospital and Doctor J C M Harper was the Daylesford doctor, they used to work together. She did quite a lot of operating and field work there. And here too at the Trentham Hospital which was a bit of a joke, it had two beds and one nurse. It was her hospital, Doctor Gwen.
She treated people for nothing. She rarely sent a bill, very rarely send an account.
She came here with her companion, Ella Miller Belle which is a lovely name. A Scottish lass that she met in Melbourne. She teamed up with her, I’m not sure of the year probably shortly after she graduated about 1918 thereabouts. Gwenny absolutely adored her. Ella near the end of her life for many years was actually stricken with arthritis, she could hardly get around. And Gwenny nursed her at home until the day she died. Completely devoted to her, a wonderful person.
The people of Trentham didn’t ask any questions about her at all. They accepted her as a doctor and a person. When I first started writing and investigating Gwen when I came here. No one knew anything about her. She arrived in Trentham, set up her practice and that’s all they knew about her. She was a good doctor and the loved her.
She was attending a meeting of the committee, that ran the little nursing hospital and she suffered a heart attack at the meeting. She was put into bed and she died that night in her hospital. I think it was quite fitting that that’s the way she went.
She was a marvelous doctor. Very talented, highly regarded surgeon in Melbourne she was. She saved a lot of lives, a lot of lives. That’s what I’d like people to remember. Her sexuality aside, I don’t think that comes into it at all. She was just a wonderful person.
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