Dr Helen Mayo OBE
Pioneer of women's and children's health
Infant mortality in South Australia during the first half of the 20th century fell dramatically. One of the key people driving forward revolutionary improvements in women's and children's health was Dr Helen Mayo, founder of the Mothers and Babies Health Association and Australia's first female university council member.
In a professional and university world heavily dominated by men, Helen Mayo graduated from medicine in 1902 with distinction, becoming the University of Adelaide's second female medical graduate. She topped her class in her fourth year, gaining the Davies Thomas Scholarship and repeated her success in her final year, winning the Everard Scholarship.
After gaining valuable experience in obstetrics and midwifery overseas in Britain, Ireland and India, Dr Mayo returned to Adelaide in 1906 to start private practice, specialising in midwifery and women's and children's health. She began to forge her distinguished career which, over the years, included various positions at the Adelaide Children's Hospital and the Royal Adelaide Hospital where she established a vaccine department. During her early years in Adelaide, she also worked as a demonstrator in pathology at the University.
In 1926 Dr Mayo completed her MD degree by thesis, becoming a clinical lecturer in medical diseases of children at the University until 1934.
From the start of her career, Dr Mayo had advocated the need for educating new mothers in looking after their babies. The Mothers and Babies Health Association (MBHA) was founded in 1927 and eventually served the whole state. It had grown out of a simple clinic for mothers and babies, established with her friend, social worker Harriet Stirling, which became the School for Mothers in 1909 and later the MBHA.
Together Dr Mayo and Harriet Stirling also set up a small hospital for babies which later became the Mareeba Babies' Hospital. Much progress was made in new methods of preventing cross infection among sick babies and infant feeding.
In 1935 Dr Mayo was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to maternal and child welfare.
Dr Mayo also made a significant contribution to the life of South Australians outside of the sphere of mothers' and babies' health.
During World War II she organised the Red Cross donor transfusion service. She also had a long association with many aspects of University life, including being elected to the University of Adelaide Council in 1914 and serving until 1960.
She helped establish St Ann's University College for Women and founded or presided over a number of associations for women. She was a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
Helen Mayo died in 1967. Various places bear her name in recognition of her enormous and varied contribution, including the original University Mayo Refectory in the University's Union House, rooms at St Ann's, Helen Mayo House for new mothers with mental health problems at the Women's and Children's Hospital, and a federal electorate.■
The above account is derived from a number of sources, including The New Women, Adelaide's early women graduates by Alison Mackinnon, The University of Adelaide 1874-1974 by W.G.K. Duncan and Roger Ashley Leonard, and the entry on Mayo in the Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition by Neville Hicks and Elisabeth Leopold. Thanks also to Helen Bruce, Reference Archivist, University of Adelaide.