Harry Whalebone’s cabin. SOURCE: Margot Hitchcock, Blackwood & District Historical Society

Gweneth Wisewould, an unconventional country doctor

Gweneth Wisewould, an unconventional country doctor

“No daughter of mine is going to be exposed to a man’s private parts,” father Frank thundered when Gwen announced that she wanted to study medicine at Melbourne University. It is unclear, however, how this hazard was avoided in the alternative he proposed: “Stay at home until you marry a suitable man and start a family.”

Gweneth was born in 1884 into wealth and privilege. She had determined from a young age to enter the medical profession and was eventually able to convince her mother who enrolled her at Melbourne University financed from her private funds. 

 Within three years of graduating, Gwen ran a successful private practice and held five positions in medical establishments, the most significant being specialist surgeon for Ear Nose and Throat at Queen Victoria Hospital. And yet her unconventional lifestyle ruffled establishment feathers. She rode around town on a motor bike, mingled with the St Kilda art set and shared a household with her friend, housekeeper and confidant Ella Bell.She was always late for appointments and smoked endless cigarettes, even in theatre. Reaching middle age she felt stifled and decided to follow her “first love; the care for the patient as a whole individual.”

And so in 1938 we find Dr Gwen rattling down to the township of Red Hill at Blackwood in her beloved Dodge truck, around three switch backs, past groves of blackwoods, stately white gums and tree fern gullies until cresting high above the tree tops for the final narrow descent over the Lerderderg and up the last climb to her ‘branch office,’ the Blackwood Hotel. One by one people appeared from gullies and ridges, huts and shanties  to consult ‘Doctor.’ Over time, Gwen started visiting the men and women in their own homes and got to know “the flavour of their independence, their hardships and their courage.” One such man was John Peters; Gwen heard from three men at the hotel that he was sick in his hut. They gave her directions: past Golden Point, by the water on a narrow foot track. She left her car on a ridge and walked down to the hut on the sloping foot track. John was lying in his bunk, very ill with pneumonia and needing hospitalisation. Gwen found a wheelbarrow, eased John into it and proceeded to push him up to the ridge. When she had just about runout of steam the three men from the pub appeared over the ridge and finished the wheeling. John made a full recovery.

By Sebastopol Rock lived Miss Fitz-Simons, beyond Golden Point’s last street over a narrow plank, down a bridle track to a gate of pickets with carved tops, each in different designs. The gate led to two cabins built end to end, with one of them inhabited by the tiniest woman Gwen had ever seen, but with a big and gentle personality. Gwen visited her on and off over the years to bring her medicines and mail, often getting there after midnight. Sitting by her bed in the one roomed house, Gwen learned her story. She had been sent out to England during the first World War and ended up nursing in the field with the French Red Cross. After war’s end she was repatriated to Australia and came home to her uncle’s cabins in Blackwood, which he owned by a miners right dated 1891. She called her home ‘Fairy Dell’ and developed it into her paradise in the bush. The hand-carved gate pickets were rescued from the abandoned Chinese Joss house nearby. She ended her days in her coveted independence well into her eighties and left Gwen the Spencer Wells forceps she had used throughout the war.

Under the veranda of ‘Westacres,’ Gwen’s house in Trentham, was a bench for examining a different kind of patient. Gwen had owned dogs all of her life and understood and loved them. Graeme Orr from Bullarto South recalls: “It was a Saturday afternoon sometime in 1958 and my hard working border collie had been run over by a truck. In desperation I rang Dr Wisewould and took Scottie to her surgery– he was a real mess. I held the dog while Gwennie worked on it. Suddenly everything got rather distant and dark; next thing I knew I was sitting in a chair. She told me that I had fainted and flopped onto the floor and that she had picked me up and put me on the chair placing my head between my knees while she went on attending the patient. Gwen was 74 at the time. When she had finished the job I asked her how much I owed her. The reply was: ‘I wouldn’t think of charging to attend a little doggie’.”

On January 19th, 1972, Dr Gwen died from a heart attack she suffered during a committee meeting of the Trentham Bush Nursing Hospital. In her surgery were piles of unsent bills going back decades – yet no patient ever went unattended whatever the time of night, however poor or dirty.