A full life, well lived

Dr Philomena McGrath


Philomena McGrath forged a career as a medical educator at a time when it was still fairly unusual for women to combine full-time working lives with their role as mothers, particularly when - as in McGrath's case - she was the mother of eight children.

After training as a doctor, she went on to be a well-regarded lecturer in anatomy and co-wrote a book on the subject that is still in use.

As a teacher McGrath's unflappability was rarely tested, even when, as on one occasion, a streaker attempted to disrupt her class. 

Philomena McGrath was born on October 20, 1930, daughter of Jack McGrath, a Randwick rails bookmaker who believed passionately in the importance of education for his daughters, and his wife, Polly (nee Gilligan).

She grew up in Kensington in Sydney's eastern suburbs, excelled academically at the local Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College, and in 1948, she enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney along with a small number of other women.

Exams at the end of the first year were designed to cut student numbers by 50 per cent, and those who, like McGrath, had not studied physics or chemistry were considered unlikely to pass.

She not only passed but topped her anatomy class in her second year and graduated with honours in 1954. McGrath then became St Vincent's Hospital's first female resident medical officer but was obliged to live in the nurses' home for lack of suitable female doctor accommodation.

In 1957 she passed the Royal College of Surgeons' surgical primary fellowship and was appointed surgical registrar at St Vincent's. It was here she met John Morgan, who went on to become the hospital's medical registrar, and her husband.

In 1959 McGrath became the then youngest female fellow of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons. She and John married in August that year, and in December they travelled to London to continue their specialist training.

On their return to Sydney in 1963, McGrath decided to pursue an academic career and became a tutor in anatomy at the University of NSW before being appointed senior lecturer in the department of anatomy at the University of Sydney. The head of Sydney's anatomy department proudly explained to colleagues that in appointing a Catholic woman who was also pregnant, he had registered an unusual trifecta.

As a teacher McGrath's unflappability was rarely tested, even when, as on one occasion, a streaker attempted to disrupt her class. She paused briefly to remark that he had been wearing sneakers and resumed her lecture.

In 1972, McGrath was awarded a Doctorate of Medicine by the University of Sydney for her research work, which is still cited in academic journals…

- By Matthew Morgan, Kate Morgan and John Warburton

Full story in The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/national/obituaries/medical-educator-ahead-of-her-time-20130317-2g8n0.html

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