Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2020, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from last year to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Over one hundred years ago, the gender imbalance in the medical profession was even greater than it is today. There were simply no women medical students, and certainly no women doctors, in Australia at all. Even when universities began to admit women into their programs, graduating, and then finding a stable job as a female doctor, seemed next to impossible. Yet a handful of women achieved the impossible, among them Iza Coghlan.

Photograph taken of Iza Coghlan in her graduation robes in 1893.

Iza Coghlan in her graduation robes, 1893 [Image source: State Records of New South Wales]

Born in Redfern in 1868 to Irish immigrants, Iza and her siblings always strived for success. Two of her brothers would go on to become prominent lawyers; a third, Timothy, was knighted in 1914. Yet Iza never let them outshine her. [1]

After winning a scholarship to attend Sydney Girls’ High School when it opened in 1883, Iza devoted her education to the pursuit of science. She enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney in 1887, the sole woman in that student intake. Despite the difficulties posed by the lessons, as well as the attitudes of her classmates and lecturers towards a female medical student, Iza graduated in 1893 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery alongside Grace Robinson. This made them the first women to graduate from medicine in New South Wales. [2]

Graduating was one obstacle Iza had overcome – being accepted as a medical professional was another. Though the local press reported her intention to join the staff at Sydney Hospital, Iza established a private practice in Liverpool Street instead. It is likely that the hospital refused her application, for it was not until 1906, thirteen years after Iza’s graduation, that they added a female doctor to their ranks. [3]

Yet Iza’s practice was itself an achievement – not only was she the first female graduate of the university to begin one, she was the first female medical graduate from any university to practice in her own city. [4] Soon she had established a stable and moderately successful business, proving her doubters wrong and demonstrating that women trusted women doctors.

Throughout the rest of her career Iza continued to contribute to the medical profession in daring new ways. She founded and was president of the NSW Medical Women’s Society until its disbanding in 1908; supported Sydney’s Medical Mission over many years; was the medical referee for the AMP office in 1894 and later the federal public service in 1910; and from 1915 onwards acted as the medical officer for the NSW Department of Public Instruction. She also formed the first women’s lifesaving class in the state at the Balmain Ladies’ Swimming Club. [5]

During the early years of Iza’s private practice, one commentator had his doubts about women in the medical field. “Women have taken up medicine as a fad,” he wrote, “as an amusement … In another ten years there won’t be a woman doctor in Sydney!” [6] Iza Coghlan retired in 1930. She was sixty-one years old, and had been a practicing doctor for over thirty-five years. Though not the first Australian woman to enrol in medicine, nor the first in the country to graduate, nor the first female doctor to find work, Iza should still be considered a trailblazing figure. More than seventy years after her death in 1946, women in medicine in Australia still owe so much to her achievements.


[1] Karen Fox, ‘Biography – Iza Frances Coghlan’, People Australia, 8 March 2019, <http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/coghlan-iza-frances-29652>, accessed 19 February 2020.
[2] Fox, ‘Biography’.
[3] ‘Clever Catholic Girls: TWO DOCTORS AND A BACHELOR OF ARTS’, The W.A. Record, 11 May 1893, 4, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/211975160>, accessed 19 February 2020; Fox, ‘Biography’.
[4] M. Hutton Neve, ‘This Mad Folly!’: The History of Australia’s Pioneer Women Doctors (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1980), 141.
[5] Fox, ‘Biography’.
[6] Hutton Neve, ‘This Mad Folly!’, 61.

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