Alumni profile: Sr Dr Mary Glowrey

Sr Dr Mary Glowrey, pioneering early woman doctor and trailblazing medical missionary in India, has been designated a ‘Servant of God’, indicating that her life and works are being investigated for possible canonisation.

Mary Glowrey began at Ormond in 1904 as a non-resident student, joining many other Catholic students who attended the College prior to establishment of Newman and St Mary’s Colleges. The College welcomed students of ‘all faiths and none’.

Mary was awarded an exhibition (scholarship) to study for a Bachelor of Arts but she switched to medicine in early 1906, a time when there were few female medical students at the University of Melbourne. In her autobiography, Mary recalls that prior to studying medicine, her favourite subject had been Greek poetry and she fondly remembered the enthusiasm of her tutor at Ormond College.

But despite her enjoyment of her studies, Glowrey had a passion for helping underprivileged women and children and wanted to implement this more directly. After a year of Arts and following much discernment, she changed courses to study Medicine. Almost immediately she put her purposes into action, spending her evenings in inner-city slums working with women and children who could not afford medical treatment.

Commencing a medical career was a challenge for a woman when Glowrey graduated in 1910. Although women had been studying medicine in Melbourne for nearly 20 years, few positions were open to them. It may have been this lack of opportunities that led Glowrey to become the first woman resident doctor ever to be appointed in New Zealand. She became deeply passionate about the role of women in the profession.

On returning to Australia Glowrey took up several medical appointments whilst setting up the first baby clinic in Camberwell, disseminating free health information and continuing to work with the poor.

Her life took a different turn when she heard about the lack of medical treatment available to women in India and the high infant mortality rate there. Both were partly caused by the almost total lack of women doctors in India: being treated by men was culturally inappropriate for Indian women. In addition, while there were many hospitals run by religious orders, these would not admit women doctors to their ranks. Inspired by the story of another pioneering Catholic woman doctor, Mary Glowrey felt called to serve God as a doctor in India.

Although keen to set out for the subcontinent, Glowrey was unable to travel immediately as the war had closed shipping lanes. Instead she undertook further training in areas that would best serve her patients in India, completing a Doctor of Medicine in gynaecology, obstetrics and ophthalmology. In 1920, she finally sailed for India and joined the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Guntur as their first ever doctor-nun.

Mary devoted her life to improving healthcare in India, where she expanded a small mission into a full hospital that cared for 637,000 patients between 1927 and 1936. She went on to establish health care systems and institutions that now look after more than 21 million people annually.

In Australia, Mary Glowrey is remembered not only for her decades of work for the poor in India but as the founder of the Catholic Women’s League and as a pioneer woman doctor.

To recognise Mary’s tremendous contributions to health, a partnership between St Vincent’s Health Australia, the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne and Ormond College has been created. This has enabled the launch of the Sr Dr Mary Glowrey Scholars Program which offers  visiting fellows from the Catholic Hospital Association of India (CHAI) India to engage in training, collaborative research, and leadership development in Melbourne.


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