2023 | Volume 24 | Issue 2

Dr Lilian Violet Cooper – our first female FRACS

Lillian Cooper

Author: Elizabeth Milford, RACS Archivist

Born in Chatham, England, Dr Lilian Cooper completed her medical degree at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1890. She and her companion, Josephine Bedford, emigrated to Queensland in 1891 and Lilian became the first female medical practitioner registered in Queensland. 

In 1896, she was also the first woman to be appointed as an Honorary Medical Officer at the Hospital for Sick Children. She began her lifelong association with the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in 1905.

Described by Clarrie Leggett as a ‘tall, angular, brusque, energetic woman, prone to bad language’ — by 1912 she had travelled overseas and visited the Mayo Clinic in the US, obtained her doctorate from the University of Durham, and developed a thriving professional practice. 

Determined to offer her medical services to the World War I effort, in 1916 Lilian Cooper joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and was sent to Ostrovo and then, Dobraveni near the Serbian front.

During the next eight months, the 40-bed dressing station at Dobraveni admitted 152 patients and the tenacious Dr Cooper—a familiar, heroic figure working in appalling conditions in knee breeches and rubber boots—performed 144 operations, with just 16 deaths. 

Severely ill with bronchitis, Dr Cooper eventually left both the unit and the war and returned to her practice in Brisbane. In 1917 she was awarded the Serbian order of St Sava.  

After the war, Dr Cooper’s successful practice focussed on the health issues of women and children. A popular practitioner who was idolised by her patients, she did her rounds by bicycle or travelled long distances by horse and cart. She was one of the first women to own a motor vehicle and did her own repairs to her aptly named ‘Yellow Peril’. 

An extraordinary advocate for women in surgery, Lilian Cooper joined the College as a Foundation Fellow (no. 128) in 1927.