Doctor Lilian Violet Cooper

Brisbane’s first practicing female doctor

In 1891, Englishwoman Dr Lilian Cooper was invited to Brisbane to join the practice of Dr James Booth of South Brisbane. Within months of her arrival, she was the first woman doctor in Brisbane to have her own surgery.

Lilian Cooper was born in Chatham in England in 1861. In order to study medicine, Cooper had to pass the examination for the Society of Apothecaries, which she did in 1885. She was one of three women, came 21st out of 157, and was awarded an Honours II. She then studied for four years at the London School of Medicine for Women, where Dr Elizabeth Garret-Anderson was Dean. Subsequent to passing the conjoint examinations of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow, received a licentiate from Edinburgh. Following the completion of her studies she worked for a general practitioner in Essex for six months.

With no woman doctor practicing in Queensland in the 1880s, Lady Musgrave, wife of the then Governor, tried unsuccessfully to have a woman doctor appointed to the Children’s Hospital. Dr James Booth of South Brisbane, evidently at the suggestion of a number of ladies, decided to engage a woman doctor to practice within his surgery. He corresponded with Lady Musgrave and Dr Garret-Anderson in England about the matter and left it to the two ladies to choose ‘a really good and competent medical woman’. They choose Dr Lilian Cooper, who arrived in Brisbane at the end of May 1891 accompanied by Josephine Bedford, a life long friend. On 9 June the first advertisement of consultation hours for Dr Lilian Cooper at Dr Booth’s surgery appeared in the Brisbane Courier.

Both Dr Cooper and Bedford roomed with Dr Booth and his wife at their Cordelia Street home. Dr Booth appears to have to introduced them to Brisbane. Bedford reportedly attended a meeting with Booth of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Children in June 1891. Although by 3 August Dr Cooper had opened consulting rooms in The Mansions on George Street, both Dr Cooper and Bedford continued to live with Dr Booth and his family in Cordelia Street, South Brisbane, Dr Cooper covering for Booth when he was away. By December 1891, with a practice in the Mansions and available for consultation at a new South Brisbane residence in Russell Street, not the Booth surgery, Dr Cooper was out on her own.

Life would have been very difficult for Dr Lilian Cooper in a profession so totally dominated by men but all reports are of her as a strong determined woman with a brisk no nonsense manner that would not be ignored.  Life was not all work. During this time  Dr Cooper and Miss Bedford attended social events such as Lady Norman’s receptions, played tennis matches with other ladies and even took part in a Christmas play.

Dr Lilian Cooper became a well-known figure leaving her surgery in the Mansions in her horse drawn sulky during the day, or by bicycle by night when she could be heard swearing as she hit potholes in the road. After the 1893 floods, Cooper and Bedford also lived at the Mansions. After an accident in late 1896 when, due to her driver’s inattention, Dr Lilian Cooper suffered a head injury after being thrown from the carriage, Josephine Bedford took over the role of driver.

In 1893 a sign of her acceptance came when she was elected to the Queensland Medical Society, and by 1910 she held Honorary positions at the Hospital for Sick Children, the Lady Lamington Hospital and the Mater Public Hospital. To further her professional knowledge, in 1911 -1912 Dr Cooper, with Josephine Bedford,  travelled to the United States  where she spent time at the Mayo Clinic, then on to London where she obtained her Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Durham. After her return, Dr Cooper continued at the Hospital for Sick Children, where she held the position of Consultant Surgeon, and the Mater Public Hospital where she took an active role in its development.

Dr Lilian was a woman of firsts. One of the first women in Queensland to own a motorcar, which she taught herself to drive and maintain, she was the only woman among the 18 founders of the Automobile Club (now the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland) in 1905. In 1909 Dr Cooper and Dr Hardie, her fellow Medical Officer at the Lady Lamington Women’s Hospital, were fined £3/3/6, a week’s wages for a workman, for speeding down Queen Street, Brisbane’s main thoroughfare, clocking over the 6 miles per hour limit.

The year 1907 saw Dr Cooper build a much larger property on the corner of George and Mary Streets (where the Department of Health and Home Affairs now stands). The surgery was on the ground floor and the residence on the first floor. It was the home of Dr Cooper and Miss Bedford until 1926, although leased when the two women were overseas – to Judge and MacNaughton in 1911 and to Queensland Premier Thomas Ryan and Mrs Ryan in 1916.

When war broke out in 1914, Dr Cooper was not allowed to join the Australian Forces overseas. In response, in September 1916 Dr Cooper and Josephine Bedford travelled to Ostrovo, 90 kms from Salonika in Northern Macedonia, to join the Scottish Women’s Hospitals who had set up a tent hospital there. Dr Cooper was one of the surgeons and Bedford ran the ambulance transport. They stayed for a year working in the most difficult conditions. The King of Serbia awarded them with the fourth and fifth class respectively of the Order of St Sava at the end of the war.

After her return from the war, Lilian continued with her practice and her work at the hospitals. In 1927 Dr Cooper and Miss Bedford moved from Auckland House (the house name for their residence at the corner of George and Mary Streets) to live at Old St Mary’s, Main Street, Kangaroo Point. Dr Cooper kept her practice in the city, locating it in the Transport & General Insurance Building. During the Depression years of the 1930s, Dr Cooper moved her practice to Old St Mary’s, until fully retiring in 1941. Lilian Cooper died at Old St Mary’s in 1947, leaving her estate to Josephine Bedford. When Bedford died a few years later she left Old St Mary’s to the Sisters of Charity. Mount Olivet Hospital (now St Vincent’s Private Hospital) was constructed on the site.

And finally…

The late Lorraine Cazalar of the Queensland Womens’ Historical Society noted, ‘One night when she found a Priest giving extreme unction to an accident victim she barked: “There’s no need for that. He is alive and he is going to stay alive”! After that it is recorded that the patient was too frightened to die!’


Queenslander, 23 May 1891, p. 967.

Telegraph, 11 July 1918.

Additional Reading

Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Lilian Cooper

Additional images