Dr Helen Mayo OBE

Dr Helen Mayo OBE founded the Mothers and Babies' Health Association in 1909.

Honour Roll

Helen Mayo was born on 1 October 1878, in Adelaide, the eldest of seven children. She and her siblings were educated by their parents in a happy family setting, then by a governess once she turned ten. Her formal schooling was brief but she was able to enrol at university in the Arts Department, transferring to medicine two years later. She was dux in her final year and won two scholarships.

After a year at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, in 1904-05 she gained experience in midwifery and children's diseases at a range of hospitals in Great Britain and India. Helen returned to Adelaide in 1906 and worked in private practice, specialising in the management of medical problems of women and children. From 1911, she worked as a clinical bacteriologist at the Adelaide Hospital, working towards her MD in 1926.

Throughout her career, her major interest was infant health. Accordingly, in 1909, she established a School for Mothers with her social worker friend, Harriet Stirling. They also set up the Mareeba Babies' Hospital in 1913 which the government took over once they encountered financial problems. Helen believed women needed assistance to rear healthy children in an urban environment and should not just rely on their natural mothering qualities. Helen opposed hospitalisation of sick babies.

With government assistance and much voluntary work, her school evolved into the Mothers and Babies' Health Association in 1927, which advised and reassured generations of young mothers. Helen held positions of responsibility at the Children's Hospital and at the Adelaide Hospital while running a busy private practice. From 1926-34, she lectured in children's medical diseases at the University of Adelaide. In 1933, she became a foundation member of the Australian College of Physicians. In 1935, she was awarded an OBE for her 'zeal for efficiency'.

Helen had been a founding member of the Lyceum Club which aimed to advance the status of women in professional life and in arts and letters. She served on the Council of the University of Adelaide from 1914-60, the first woman in Australia to be elected to the governing body of a university. She was also a founder of the Women's Non-Party Political Association in 1909.

Helen has been described as a progressive woman of forceful views. She lived in a North Adelaide house with her partner Dr Constance Finlayson. During her lifetime, infant morbidity declined by around 60% and women achieved much in the medical profession. Helen played a vital role in influencing these trends.