BENNETT, Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd, O.B.E.
Medical practitioner and feminist.
A new biography of Bennett, Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Agnes Bennett was born at Neutral Bay, New South Wales in 1872, the sixth child of William Christopher Bennett, an Irish engineer who became the Commissioner of Roads and Bridges in New South Wales, and of Agnes Amelia Hays, whom he married in Sydney in 1860. Early in 1878 when Agnes was five and a half, Mrs Bennett took the family to England to be educated. Agnes went to Cheltenham Ladies' College, then to Dulwich Girls' High School. In 1880 her mother died and the family returned to Sydney, where her education was continued at Abbotsleigh and Sydney Girls' High School. In 1889, the year of her father's death, Agnes won a bursary to Sydney University. In 1894 she became the first Sydney University woman to gain a B.Sc. with honours. Finding that women scientists were not wanted, she decided to study medicine at Edinburgh, where she graduated M.B., C.M., in 1899. In 1911 Dr Bennett returned to Edinburgh to pass her M.D.
Such was the prejudice against women doctors that Dr Bennett could not find suitable employment in Scotland and Sydney, but in 1905 she was invited by Dr Ella Watson to take over her practice in Wellington. The practice prospered and in 1908 Dr Bennett was appointed medical officer to St. Helen's Hospital, a position which she considered the most important in her life. She continually strove to reduce the infant, neo-natal, and maternal mortality rates, and at her retirement in 1936 New Zealand's were amongst the lowest in the world. In 1910 Dr Bennett was appointed honorary physician to the children's ward of the Wellington Public Hospital, the first New Zealand appointment of a woman doctor to the staff of a public hospital. To further her medical knowledge Dr Bennett went to the Mayo Clinic, United States, and to English hospitals during 1925, and to the British Medical Association Conference at Eastbourne in 1931 as a New Zealand representative.
Her early struggles to make a place for herself inclined Dr Bennett to champion the cause of education for the vocational qualification of women. She had clashes in 1909 and again at the 1914 Conference of the Australasian branch of the BMA with Doctors Batchelor and Truby King, who argued that women's natural functions as mothers would be impaired by the rigours of study and commercial and academic life. Dr Bennett's reasoned arguments were confirmed by the indispensable part that women played in the First World War.
Soon after the outbreak of war in 1914, Dr Bennett offered her services to the Army in New Zealand, but it was not until she was in Cairo on her way to serve with the French Red Cross that she was gladly accepted and commissioned captain in the New Zealand Medical Corps. Early in 1916, with her work completed at Shoubra Hospital, she went on to London where, after meeting Dr Elsie Inglis, founder of the Scottish Women's Hospitals, she left with a unit for Serbia, landing at Salonika on 13 August 1916. Dr Bennett served with the unit, which was attached to the Third Royal Serbian Army, until mid-1917 when, stricken with malaria, she returned to New Zealand. For her services she was awarded the Third Order of St. Sava and the Royal Red Cross of Serbia.
When the International Federation of University Women was founded after the war, Dr Bennett became Wellington Branch president. In 1936 she represented the New Zealand Branch at a world conference at Cracow.
Dr Bennett relinquished her private practice in 1930 and built her house, Honda, at Lowry Bay in 1932. When it became too large for her in 1947, she gave it to the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union as a rest centre. After retiring from St. Helen's in 1936, she was drawn by her vitality and enthusiasm into yet further spheres of service. At the request of an Australian colleague, Dr Bennett spent 1938 and 1939 in Northern Queensland assisting in the “flying doctor” service.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Dr Bennett formed the Women's War Service Auxiliary of New Zealand. Soon the Government took it over and Dr Bennett went to England on the Port Alma as medical officer. There she worked from December 1940 to 1942, first in the Women's Voluntary Service, then as resident medical officer to Banbury Hospital, and, finally, as resident obstetrician at Woolwich Hospital. Returning to New Zealand, she lectured young women in the Army on sexual hygiene and helped with the work of the Navy League Sewing Circle. In the 1948 Birthday Honours she became an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Dr Bennett died in Wellington on 27 November 1960.
Dr Bennett possessed qualities of singleness of purpose, wide sympathy and generosity, which, with a keen scientific mind, enabled her to see an avenue of service and devote herself wholeheartedly to it. Her service to humanity contributed greatly to the advancement of women's status, particularly in her own profession.
by John Sidney Gully, M.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Assistant Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.
- Doctor Agnes Bennett, Manson, Cecil and Celia (1960)
- Evening Post, 29 Nov 1960 (Obit)
- Press (Christchurch), 10 Dec 1960.