Dr Lilian Cooper

Doctor LILIAN COOPER – first female registered doctor in Queensland

Lilian Cooper was born in England in 1861 and from an early age wanted to become a doctor. She overcame the discriminations at the time and studied medicine in London and Edinburgh. In May 1891 she came to Brisbane with her lifelong friend Josephine Bedford and a month later she became the first female doctor registered in Queensland.

She joined the Medical Society of Queensland in 1893, and later became an honorary in the Hospital for Sick Children and the Lady Lamington Hospital for Women. In 1905 she became associated with the Mater Misericordiae Hospital and stayed with it for the rest of her life.

In June 1911 Dr. Cooper returned to England via the United States where she visited the Mayo Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. She went on to win a doctorate of medicine from the University of Durham in 1912.

Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford outside their tent in Serbia, cleaning their boots.

With Miss Bedford she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in 1915, served for twelve months, including a time in Macedonia, and was awarded the Serbian Order of St. Sava, fourth-class.

Notification of the Insignia of the Order of St. Sava awarded to Lilian Cooper and Josephone Bedford by the King of Serbia.

Cooper settled again in Brisbane after the war and had a large and successful practice.

Dr Lilian Cooper used to make house calls by horse and sulky during the day and by bicycle at night. Here she is on the right, with her long-time partner Josephine Bedford ready to leave the surgery at The Mansion.

She became popular with her patients and was seen doing her rounds on her sulky during the day and by bicycle at night.

Houses in Kangaroo Point ca 1883, showing St Mary’s and Old St Mary’s.

In 1926 she bought a house called Old St Mary’s in Main Street, Kangaroo Point, and settled there in semi-retirement, becoming a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1928. She retired in 1941 and died in her home on 18 August 1947. She was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Headstone for Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford.

After Lilian’s death in 1947, her partner Josephine first offered their Kangaroo Point cliff top home to the Anglican Church. They refused and the Catholic Sisters of Charity agreed to convert the house into a hospice for the aged and dying. That hospice later evolved into the Mount Olivet Hospital, now St. Vincent’s Hospital.

St Mary’s Anglican Church in Kangaroo Point has memorial windows that were donated by Josephine Bedford to commemorate the life of Dr. Lilian Cooper. There is also an altar which is embroidered with Dr. Cooper’s medal of St. Sava.

The Lilian Cooper Women’s Health Centre in Spring Hill, the first Brisbane clinic dedicated to women’s health, opened in 1987, is named in her honour.

Dr Lilian Cooper –  Pioneer doctor and pioneer motorist.

Did you know? ­Not only was Dr Lilian Cooper the first female doctor registered in Queensland (in June 1891), she was also Queensland’s first recorded female registered motorist.

At a recent RACQ function we were treated to an excellent presentation on the history of the association. Afterwards I chatted to the archivist, Robyn Harris, about Dr Lilian Cooper’s involvement with the organisation and filled in a few gaps about what I knew about the motoring interests of this remarkable woman.

Example of a 7hp Oldsmobile, Lilian Cooper’s first car.

Dr Lilian Cooper taught herself to drive in 1904 and bought her first car, a 7hp Oldsmobile a year later. Her partner, Josephine Bedford, who had been driving Lilian around in their sulky, did not seem too impressed at the time. In a letter written from New York[1] she wrote: ‘Dr. Cooper is bringing out a motor car, but nothing will ever be to me what a horse is. … I did some motoring with my brothers in England…’  Lilian became a keen motorist and did most of the car maintenance and repairs herself. Josephine began driving regularly five years later in 1910.

Notice in the Brisbane Courier, 30 March 1907.

Motor cars gradually became more accepted by the general public and started to replace the traditional horse-drawn vehicles. The formation of the Automobile Club of Queensland, now the RACQ, in 1905 further helped to promote acceptance of the car. Lilian Cooper was one of the 18 foundation members, and the only woman. Ten of the foundation members were medical practitioners who saw the practical benefits of cars for making house calls and transporting patients.

The RACQ’s archive records for foundation members and their vehicles as at 31 May 1905 show: ‘Dr Lilian V. Cooper, Physician, 105 George Street, Brisbane and her nominated vehicle was a 7hp Oldsmobile.’ In 1907 Dr Cooper, by now an experienced veteran of Brisbane’s roads, upgraded to a four-cylinder Humber, described as ‘absolutely silent, and steals through the traffic like an electric car’.[2]

Lilian loved driving. She drove all around Brisbane and environs and went on many road trips, the longest being Brisbane to Sydney. Her liking for fast driving earned her Humber the nickname The Yellow Peril by Brisbanites, ‘yellow’ for its colour and ‘peril’ for Lilian’s driving. She incurred several speeding fines over the years, including a £3 fine for roaring down Queen Street at over twice the speed limit at seventeen miles per hour!

The Brisbane showroom of the Canada Cycle & Motor Agency from which Lilian Cooper ordered her second car, the Humber. (RACQ archives).

Motoring suited her temperament. She was described as a ‘tall, angular, brusque, energetic woman, prone to bad language, who was ‘often heard cursing and swearing at an obstinate engine.’[3] She was fiercely independent and accepted no help from anyone. By 1923 she was driving a Renault with a plate number Q2689 and no longer drove the Humber.[4]

Background article on the challenges women faced when becoming motorists and acknowledgement of Lilian Cooper’s contribution.

She was indeed a formidable and remarkable medical and motoring pioneer.

[1] Queenslander , 7 January 1905
[2] RACQ archives
[3] Australian Dictionary of Biography
[4] Qnews.com.au