It was inevitable that during the research for my book, I would come across the name of Dr Roberta Jull. Her influence on the welfare of children and the status of women in Western Australia in the 1890s and early 1900s was huge. She arrived in Perth to join her brother, who was also a doctor, in 1896, soon after graduating from Glasgow University medical school. Under her maiden name, Stewart, she became the first female doctor to set up a practice in Perth.
But Dr Jull wasn’t the first female doctor to practice in Western Australia, as she herself was at pains to point out. That title went to Dr Margaret Corlis (or “Mrs Dr. Corlis” as the papers often described her) who was registered by the Western Australian Medical Board in 1895.
Margaret Amelia Corlis
Margaret Amelia Corlis, nee Walker, was born in Ontario, Canada in 1840. She married Josiah Corlis in 1862, supported him through medical school by taking in boarders, then took up medical studies herself at Queen’s University, Kingston. She did this while raising three boys. (A fourth child, a daughter, died in infancy of diphtheria.) Margaret was one of the first female medical graduates in Canada, getting her degree in 1885.
Her husband, Dr Josiah Corlis, arrived in Australia sometime in the late 1880s, and set up practice in Bellingen, New South Wales. Margaret followed him in 1891 with the two younger sons. She registered with the NSW Medical Board in May 1892.
Josiah and Margaret arrived in Perth in late 1894, apparently drawn, like so many others, by the prosperity being generated by the West Australian gold rush. At the time much of the rest of the country was in recession. They soon moved to Southern Cross on the goldfields, where Josiah began advertising his services as a “mechanical and surgical dentist“.
Life on the goldfields
A typhoid outbreak in Coolgardie, east of Southern Cross, led to Josiah moving there to help deal with it. By late 1895 Margaret Corlis had joined him. Newspaper advertisements reveal that she and a nurse Boland were providing much-needed obstetric care in Coolgardie.
On one occasion Margaret Corlis was called to see a young woman who had recently taken up a job as a housemaid at Fein’s Wine and Beer Saloon. The girl was obviously in labour but she was refusing to let anyone near her, and denied that she was even pregnant. The baby died and the girl was charged with concealing a birth.
Moving to Menzies
Josiah was appointed Government Medical Officer and Justice of the Peace for the newly-established town of Menzies, 730km north east of Perth. When they arrived there were a few stores and hotels already built and some public buildings in the process of construction, but as yet no railway, and the hospital was in a canvas building. Margaret often travelled long distances by camel to reach her patients in outlying camps.
Josiah became Mayor of Menzies in 1898, while continuing his work at the hospital. In 1900 the house that the family lived in was burned to the ground, along with the surgery and much of their equipment. Margaret was away at the time. Despite this disaster, they stayed in Menzies until 1906. They then returned to New South Wales.
All three of their sons became doctors, the eldest in New York and the other two in Australia. Josiah died in 1922. Margaret lived to the age of 85, suffering from blindness in her later years but still active. She died in 1925.
Margaret Corlis apparently took little interest in feminist politics or health policy and so was much less prominent in Western Australian history than Roberta Jull. But her pioneering role as Western Australia’s first female doctor is worth remembering.