Edith Margaret Linser was a truly remarkable woman. Born at the height of the Victorian gold rush to parents of small means, she nonetheless rose to become one of the first women in Australia to be a qualified surgeon. When she graduated, in 1884, she was the only woman in her class, and her unique status was a great hindrance to her future career.
For over a decade, Linser worked as a nurse – the closest that the medical establishment of the day would allow her to come to performing surgery. Edith dealt with this as patiently as she was able, but the strain told on her. Several suitors were rebuffed despite her interest in them, as she felt that she had to give her all to the pursuit of her career if she was ever to be a surgeon.
Matters came to a head in 1885, when she was assisting Dr Beaufort Montgomery Joyce in an operation at St Vincent’s Hospital in East Melbourne. Joyce had arrived in the operating theatre intoxicated, having come directly from a yachting regatta on the bay. When Linser attempted to point out an error he was making, he demanded that she be removed by an orderly. Linser’s patience was exhausted as this point, and she fought off the orderly, pushing him out the door of the operating theatre and wedging it closed behind him. She then laid out Dr Joyce with what one witness described as the finest right cross he’d ever seen, and performed the operation herself.
Although the operation was a success, the controversy that arose from it – largely the work of the vengeful Joyce and his patrician family – effectively ended Linser’s career in medicine. However, Edith Linser was not a woman to be easily discouraged. She relocated beyond the reach of the Melbourne authorities, making a residence for herself on the beach between Mordialloc and Chelsea. Here, she ran a strictly unofficial clinic for local residents, hoping not to draw the attention of the authorities (who seemed perfectly willing to pretend ignorance of her activities).
By the turn of the century, she had become too well-known for the government to ignore. When Federation took place in 1901, one of Prime Minister Edmund Barton’s first priorities in office was shutting down unauthorised clinics – and Linser’s was near the top of his list. However, Linser was tipped off to the upcoming raid by a policeman who was also a grateful former patient. With her characteristic aplomb, she thwarted the authorities by holding a press conference in which she announced her intention to volunteer as a nurse with the Army medical corps then fighting the Boer War.
As she had suspected, the authorities on the ground in South Africa cared more about a doctor’s results than whether or not that doctor wore a brassiere. She was finally able to do the work she had trained for, and she excelled at it. Many soldiers were impressed by her coolness under fire, and even their enemies came to respect her implacable pacifism. Efforts to see her service rewarded with a decoration came to naught, however, as the British High Command refused to give a woman a medal – any medal.
Nonetheless, by the time she returned to Melbourne, Edith Linser was known as the angel of the battlefield, and every newspaper referred to her a Dr Linser. She was feted by the Prime Minister (now Alfred Deakin), but wished for nothing more than to resume her practice in the region she had made her home.
Her death, in 1911, was not marked by any particular ceremony. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher apparently wanted to honour her, but was restricted to giving her a salute from the floor of Parliament. And in his words, the neighbours of Edith Linser at last found a better name for their township than ‘North Chelsea‘ – although had they known Latin better, we might pronounce it differently today. Fisher’s tribute was simple, but profound. He bowed his head in silence for a minute, than spoke three words:
“Vale, Edith. Vale.”
Suburbs near Edithvale: