Margaret Harper (1879-1964) and Enid MacDonald (1889-1986) were resident medical officers at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children on the corner of Bridge Rd and Booth St, Camperdown. Built in the period 1905-7, the complex replaced the Sydney Hospital for Sick Children which occupied three terrace houses on the corner of Wigram and Glebe Point Rds. The earlier hospital was totally demolished and is now the site of Glebe Library while much of the Camperdown land is covered with units and town houses.
Born into a medical family in Queensland, Enid MacDonald graduated MB from the University of Sydney in 1911. After leaving the Children’s Hospital she joined the Dept of Education’s medical staff checking on the health of staff and students in rural schools before taking up an appointment with the Lunacy Dept as a junior assistant medical officer. She resigned the latter position just before she married in December 1915. Enid’s husband was Reginald MacDougall Bowman, then on military leave after contracting typhoid fever at Gallipoli.
Bowman (1887-1975) was a classmate of Enid, graduating MB ChM in 1911, and, like her, descended from medical practitioners. He returned to war action and was back in Australia in 1919. Daughters Janet and Helen were born in 1916 and 1920 respectively.
Margaret Harper was born in Melbourne and raised by aunts and housekeepers until her early teens when her widowed clergyman father remarried. She was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College and at Melbourne University, sharing the 1899 W T Mollison foreign language scholarship for a year’s study in Italy. In 1901 she began studying medicine, transferring to the University of Sydney when her father was appointed principal of St Andrew’s College. She graduated MB ChM in 1906 and worked in various hospitals before joining the Camperdown staff in 1910.
Honorary physician at the first Baby Health Centre and a founder of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, Margaret Harper was the first medical director of the Royal Society for Mothers and Babies’ Infant Welfare Centre, operational from 1921 in Tresillian, a large house in Petersham.
An advocate of breastfeeding, Harper questioned the value of commercially-prepared infant foods and refined her own infant diets. Her coeliac patients were taken off cereals and fed cottage cheese and bananas, while thickened cereal was recommended as a cure for habitual vomiting. She rejected Dr Truby King’s strict routine of feeding by the clock, and in 1926 she published The Parents’ Book, a child care manual which was reissued over 30 years. She saw the need to improve the way Sydney’s milk was delivered, and was the first in the world to recognise cystic fibrosis of the pancreas.
Stimulating and at ease in clinical meetings, Harper was a ‘dreadful’ lecturer who read from a prepared script with her head down. As ‘The Lady Doctor’ she broadcast weekly for the ABC from 1933 to 1936. In pre-Second World War Sydney she was one of only four full-time paediatric physicians. A diet kitchen at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and a ward at the Rachel Forster Hospital were named after her.
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography Margaret Hilda Harper entry; Children’s Hospital Camperdown Hand in Hand; National Archives of Australia; NSW registry of births, deaths, marriages; Trove website.
Posted on October 2, 2021 by Lyn Collingwood
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