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Clisby, Harriet Jemima (1830–1931)

from Worker (Brisbane)

Last week the death was announced by cable from London of Dr. Harriet Clisby, who was described as the oldest woman doctor in the world, and who might, in fact, quite easily have been the oldest doctor in the world, for it was on August 31, 1930, that she celebrated her hundredth birthday. Her life had been one full of adventures, and she declared on her birthday that she had forgotten none of them. Born in London, she was taken to Australia at the age of seven, and, as a centenarian, she found the greatest delight in recalling the five months' voyage in a sailing ship. Harriet Clisby made her home with her parents in Adelaide, 'sleeping,' as she remembered, 'in hammocks slung between trees in what is now the main street of South Australia's capital.'

Dr. Clisby saw Adelaide grow; she saw the first newspaper published there, and in those days she believed that writing was to be her vocation. At the age of twenty-eight, she was conducting a community home in Adelaide for the rescue of woman prisoners; but later, with a friend, she founded what has been described as 'Australia's first magazine,' the 'Interpreter,' and later again she became the editor of another paper, which rejoiced in the name of the 'Southern Phonographic Harmonia.' It was while she was editing this paper that one morning she received among her mail a pamphlet by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell dealing with the medical training of women. As soon as she had read it she knew that medicine, and not writing, was to be her vocation. She went to England, where Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson proved a staunch friend, but warned her that the United States was the only country which offered any opening to woman doctors.

Harriet Clisby could not then afford to go to America, so she worked at Guy's Hospital as a nurse, since she might not be a medical student. Eventually she earned and saved sufficient money to enable her to travel to New York, where she won her diploma in 1865. She lived for some time in that city, but more than twenty years of her life were spent in Boston, where she founded the Educational and Industrial Women's Union, which now has branches all over the United States. In Boston she knew Louisa Alcott, the author of 'Little Women.'

She retired from active practice in 1880, settling in Geneva. From 1911 until her death she lived in London, and until but a few years ago she still gave drawing-room lectures to interested audiences. Her interviewer on her hundredth birthday found her engaged in doing physical jerks, and was reproved for not following her example.

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Citation details

'Clisby, Harriet Jemima (1830–1931)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 October 2020.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Walker, Harriet Jemima

31 August 1830
London, Middlesex, England


30 April 1931
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Passenger Ship