Dr Lilian Cooper and Ms Josephine Bedford

The legacy of Dr Lilian Cooper and her lifelong companion Ms Mary Josephine Bedford is a sizable one and hiding in plain sight around Brisbane. You may have driven over the Story Bridge in Brisbane and noticed a large hospital on the left hand side of the Kangaroo Point cliffs. St Vincents' Hospital was originally the site of Dr Cooper and Ms Bedford's home.  In 1951 Ms Bedford gifted the site to the Sisters of Charity in memory of her dear companion Dr Cooper who had passed away in 1947.  As a driver, you may also be a member of the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ).  As one of the founding members of the organisation, Dr Cooper was particularly fond of zooming around the streets of Brisbane in her Overland (at more than 6 miles per hour!) as well as participating in car rallies organised by other medical motor car enthusiasts.       

Bedford Park in Spring Hill and the Lilian Cooper Medical Centre remain lasting physical markers of Ms Bedford and Dr Cooper’s contribution to Queensland’s health and welfare history, respectively.  Their dedication, passion and determination laid the foundation for many other women, including many other dangerous women, to challenge the establishment and bring about systemic change. 

 

Portrait of Dr Lilian Cooper 1861-1947, Brisbane. (State Library of Queensland collection)

Ms Mary Josephine Bedford, Brisbane c. 1954. (State Library of Queensland collection)

Individually these women were fierce trailblazers but together they became forces of nature. On completing her education at the London School of Medicine for Women, Scottish born Dr Cooper sailed for Brisbane with Ms Bedford in 1891. In June of that year, Dr Cooper applied for registration with with Medical Board of Queensland, becoming the first woman doctor registered in Queensland and the second in Australia. Dr Cooper began her professional career in Brisbane with Dr Booth at his general practice in South Brisbane. However, after 6 months of working with Booth who was, reportedly, inebriated for much of the time, Dr Cooper terminated her agreement with him and set up her own practice. Her actions raised the ire of Brisbane’s then (all male) medical establishment who shunned her professionally until 1893 when she was finally admitted as a member of the Queensland Medical Society. She commenced her own practice at the George Street Mansions in 1893, making house calls in her horse and sulky initially, then famously, in her much-loved motorcar.     

With her reputation as a surgeon strengthening, Dr Cooper and Ms Bedford undertook a study tour of the United States and England. While Dr Cooper visited the Mayo brothers’ clinic in Minnesota and John Hopkins Hospital in Maryland to observe new surgical techniques, Ms Bedford visited various hospitals to learn more about the role of committees in hospital management as well as the latest research in women and children’s welfare.   

Ms Bedford (left) and Dr Cooper in a horse and sulky, Brisbane 1900. (State Library of Queensland collection)

When the First World War broke out Dr Cooper and Ms Bedford joined the Scottish Women's Hospital in Serbia where they worked under horrendous conditions. Dr Cooper performed 10 amputations in the first days of their posting and Ms Bedford, working as an ambulance driver, became adept at dodging potholes on the 45 kilometre trips she made 4 - 5 times each day, up and down the Kajmakčalan mountain. Dr Agnes Bennett, a medical officer working beside both women, praised them both for their tireless efforts, even though she noted, Dr Cooper is sometimes, “so fearfully indiscreet in some of her public remarks.”  

Both women were recognised for their outstanding service and each received an Order of St Sava from the King of Serbia.

With the war over, Dr Cooper and Ms Bedford returned to Brisbane in 1918, picking up where they left off. Ms Bedford became a Founder of the Creche and Kindergarten (C&K) Association and in 1920 she was elected to the National Council of Women.  Her companion, Dr Cooper became a Foundation Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and Founder of the Queensland Medical Women’s Society.  

Dr Lilian Cooper and Mary Josephine Bedford are buried together at Toowong Cemetery.  

Doctor Lilian Violet Cooper and Mary Josephine Bedford's gravestones at Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, 2008. (State Library of Queensland collection)

To hear more stories about Dr Cooper and Ms Bedford download the Dangerous Women podcast and listen to Katy Forde and Holly Zwalf discuss their extraordinary lives, labour and legacy.  

Dangerous Women is a podcast by State Library of Queensland, hosted by Holly Zwalf, produced by Snaggletooth Productions and supported by Queensland Library Foundation’s Crowd Giving fundraising campaign. 

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The Queensland Medical Women’s Society would love to hear more on this topic from Holly Zwaif as we begin to plan our 100th anniversary in 2029

Hi Lydia, Thank you for your comment. I would be happy to discuss this further with you. Could you please email me at qldmemory@sld.qld.gov.au? Kind regards Chrissi