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Patricia Anne Brennan (1944–2011)

by Elaine Lindsay

In a Sydney cafe in 1983, at a meeting to discuss forming a reform group in the Anglican Church, someone said, ''We'll need a constitution.'' To which Patricia Brennan replied, ''That's easy. It's 'Give 'em hell.'''

Dr Patricia Anne Brennan, AM, MBBS, M Forensic Med, PhD was a medical missionary, wife and mother, television broadcaster, forensic physician, founding president of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, a subject of study by HSC students, sculptor and a seeker of truth and righteousness.

She was born Patricia Anne Wilkinson on April 15, 1944, one of three girls to George Wilkinson, a compositor, and his wife, Eileen Nugent, a hospital matron. She grew up in a cottage in Hurstville and went to Hurstville Public School then St George Girls High School, where her delight in ideas, skill in debating, love of poetry, incipient feminism and sense of the dramatic were nurtured. While she might have been drawn to Portia, her Lady Macbeth passed into legend.

She won a Commonwealth scholarship to the University of Sydney, where she studied medicine, graduating in 1968. After serving her internship, she worked as senior resident at a number of hospitals until 1970.

By then she had met Rob Brennan — in 1968, they were both counsellors at an Anglican mission. Patricia went off to work as a missionary physician and surgeon at the Sudan Interior Mission Hospital in Jos, Nigeria, and Galmi surgical and obstetric hospital in Niger, while Rob stayed in Sydney. They married in 1971 and then went to Nigeria, where Rob, a mathematician and actuary, taught and Patricia again worked as a doctor with the mission. They also spent time in Canada, the US and Britain.

The couple returned to Australia in 1973 and Brennan was the haematology registrar at Prince of Wales Hospital and the general-practice consultant for the Sudan Interior Mission headquarters. In 1977, she established a solo general practice at Summer Hill, which she maintained until 1986.

Years of struggling against fundamentalism in the mission society had radicalised her. Like many women missionaries, she had seen the widespread violence that was perpetrated against women and had also achieved an independence that was not appreciated in the Anglican diocese of Sydney. She committed herself to nurturing women's spiritual freedom and physical health.

The Sydney cafe meeting gave birth to the Movement for the Ordination of Women and Brennan was president of national MOW from 1985 to 1989.

She was a charismatic leader and in the struggle to have women ordained as priests and bishops in the Anglican Church in Australia, she galvanised supporters, banished their fears and inspired laughter and hope.

There are now more than 500 women priests in active ministry in Australia, three women who are cathedral deans and two women bishops. Brennan overcame the tensions of liturgical and philosophical differences, too, bringing together feminists from the Uniting Church, the Catholic Church and the Women-Church movement. She was behind national feminist theology conferences in 1989 and 1991 and the establishment of the Australian Feminist Theology Foundation.

She made international links, whether it was hosting Monica Furlong, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Carter Heyward and Phyllis Trible in Australia, challenging the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth conference in 1988, or reporting on the 1989 US consecration of Barbara Harris as the first woman bishop in the Anglican communion.

By then, she had been discovered by the media and was a presenter on ABC television and ABC radio and a freelance journalist for the Herald.

In 1988, Brennan received a Bicentennial Women of Achievement award and, in 1993, was appointed a member of the Order of Australia. She was recognised by the Australian Council of Churches' Commission on the Status of Women in its calendar honouring women of faith: January 10 is dedicated to Brennan, ''prophet in our time''.

Through all this, she maintained her medical practice, teaching and academic study. Appointments included assistant medical director with the Sydney Square diagnostic breast clinic; medical director of the Liverpool/Fairfield Sexual Assault Service; senior lecturer in the department of general practice at the University of Sydney; and, at The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, she was the first staff specialist in forensic medicine specialising in sexual assault in an emergency department in NSW.

In 2001, Brennan obtained a doctorate of philosophy in medical anthropology and sociology from the University of Newcastle; her thesis - The Gender Anomaly, Women: Sick, Sickened or Sickening? - focused on gender, the body and abuse. Her 2003 graduate diploma in forensic medicine from Monash University was followed by a 2005 master's degree in forensic medicine for her thesis The Medical and Ethical Aspects of Photography in the Sexual Assault Examination: Why Does It Offend? Her work with the NSW Police Force in supporting women rape victims was groundbreaking. She was a Fellow of the Australasian College of Biomedical Scientists and a Fellow of the Australasian College of Legal Medicine.

At the time of her death, Brennan had just been appointed a visiting Fellow at the University of NSW school of law, where she was to research the role of the expert witness in court.

By 2007, Brennan was no longer a member of a church congregation. She might have remained ''thoughtfully Christian'' but had decided it was impossible to change the Anglican Church in Sydney from within. She returned briefly to the fray in 2008 as convener of the Sydney MOW, provoked ''by my overseas study in forensic medicine in the USA, UK and the United Arab Emirates, where I saw the global trends in the abuse of women and children''.

She could not ''disregard the systemic subjugation of women, underpinned by male priests and bishops, while it is given personal and physical expression every day, especially for those women who are in disadvantaged settings''.

Patricia Brennan is survived by Rob, children Kate, Peter and James, grandson Gabriel and her sisters, Elizabeth and Sandra.

Original publication

Citation details

Elaine Lindsay, 'Brennan, Patricia Anne (1944–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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