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Gwenyth Helen (Gwen) Williams (1917–2011)

by Charles Sowerwine and Stuart Macintyre

Gwen Williams, n.d.

Gwen Williams, n.d.

Gwenyth (Gwen) Helen Williams, a significant figure in health, education and drug treatment in the postwar years, has died at an aged care facility in Kew. She was 93.

Born in Warragul, the second child of the Reverend William Williams, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Helen (nee Baud), she grew up in a remarkable family. Her siblings excelled in several areas: Sir Bruce Williams was vice-chancellor of Sydney University; Morris was sub-dean of Melbourne University's faculty of education; Colin was dean of the divinity faculty at Yale University in the United States; and Ruth taught music at Methodist Ladies' College.

Williams proceeded from University High and MLC to Melbourne University, initially to study commerce. The death of her older brother, Ken, while serving with Bomber Command in wartime Britain in 1942, led her to study nursing at Epworth Hospital, where she became a tutor sister.

In 1945, she was the first Centaur War Services Memorial Scholar, taking up a two-year post-graduate nursing scholarship at Kings College, London. Back in Australia, in 1949 she was appointed executive officer of nursing services by the Hospital and Charities Commission, a position set up to establish schools for those wanting to enter the profession, provide courses for post-graduate nursing and a nurses employment bureau, at a time when there was a critical shortage of nurses in Victoria.

In 1952, she became director of nursing at the Bendigo and Northern District Base Hospital, from where she retired in 1955 for health reasons.

However, the following year she took a position in the history department at Melbourne University. While her formal title changed, for 20 years she was effectively the manager of the department and trusted counsellor of its heads, from John La Nauze and Max Crawford to John Poynter and Greg Dening.

Williams was a notable example of a university administrator who pursued her entire career within the same department, applied all of her energies to its welfare and entered into the full range of its activities. Her authority was recognised both by the students, whom she advised on their course of studies, and the staff, who relied on her knowledge of university procedures.

One head of the department would acknowledge that he learnt how to administer by seeking her advice whenever he saw her pencil hesitate. Always a stickler, she insisted one new member of staff who arrived to take up his appointment return wearing socks and shoes, at which time he would be given the key to his room.

Williams's contribution extended well beyond her department. She played a significant role in the design of the new Arts South Building, now the John Medley Building, and was a member of the council of St Hilda's College. Her style of administration, highly personal and closely involved with the teaching and research of her academic colleagues, has since been displaced by new structures of management and our universities are the poorer for their absence.

Williams retired from the University in 1975, although she continued to provide advice on such matters as the provision of childcare and served on the board of the university's Social Biology Resources Centre.

She continued to lunch regularly at University House up to her final years. But she had already embarked on her third career when, in 1969, the Methodist Conference set up an alcohol and other drug treatment and education agency that became Moreland Hall. Williams was asked to join the committee of management from the start, because of her commitment to social justice and her wide experience in nursing and university administration.

She was for 30 years a member of the Moreland Hall board of management, and for several years during the 1970s and 1980s chaired the board. Throughout the 1990s she convened the programs committee, a role in which she worked closely with the executive director and the program managers overseeing the improvement of existing programs and developing ideas for new programs.

Moreland Hall's youth residential drug withdrawal unit was given the name Gwenyth Williams House in her honour. It was opened on June 13, 2000.

Throughout her life, she showed an enormous capacity for friendship and linking people together. As with other members of the Williams family, she had a deep love of music and regularly attended concerts and opera. She remained an active member of St Michael's Uniting Church in Collins Street.

Williams, who was the last of her siblings, is survived by 14 nieces and nephews.

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Citation details

Charles Sowerwine and Stuart Macintyre, 'Williams, Gwenyth Helen (Gwen) (1917–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 6 December 2023.

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