Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Kenty - Ellen Mary Kent Hughes (1893 -1979), medical practioner and alderman

Note to readers: This story on Dr Kent Hughes, Kenty, is drawn- pinched - from L A (Lionel) Gilbert's biographical entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography on-line edition. I have added some personal memories and a few links.

One of the things I love about the ADB entries is the way I can sometimes add emotional content to people I know. I also like the way they help me trace linkages between people. In the case of Kenty, I knew her not well but for a long time.

Dr Kent Hughes was born on 29 August 1893 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, eldest of seven children of Wilfred Kent Hughes, a Victorian-born surgeon, and his wife Clementina Jane, née Rankin (d.1916), a nurse from England.

Ellen was a niece of Rev. Ernest Selwyn Hughes, and a sister of (Sir) Wilfrid Kent Hughes and Gwenda Lloyd. She attended Ruyton Girls' School, Kew, then remained at home in 1912 until her mother was discharged from a tuberculosis sanatorium. In the following year Ellen entered Trinity College Hostel, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1917).

On 31 July 1917 at St Monica's Catholic Presbytery, Footscray, she married Paul René Loubet, a divorcee from France and a medical-assistant at the Children's Hospital, Melbourne. Widowed three months later, Ellen bore Paul's son. Colleagues found her temporary work at Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital for Women and Children; they also found her a nanny, Alice Pickup, who remained an esteemed member of Ellen's household for fifty-four years.

In 1918 Dr Kent Hughes, as she was known professionally, was appointed resident medical officer at the Hospital for Sick Children, Brisbane, on a salary of £50 a year. Mother and baby lived in quarters, with Alice nearby. One year later Ellen accepted a locum tenency at Mitchell at a time when the State was gripped by drought and the pneumonic influenza epidemic. There, on 26 August 1920, at All Saints Anglican Church she married Francis Garde Wesley Wilson (d.1970), a returned soldier and auctioneer; they were to have a son and three daughters.

In 1921 the Wilsons went to Kingaroy where Mrs Wilson was elected (1923) to the shire council. In 1928 the family moved to Armidale. With extraordinary energy, 'a co-operative husband' and Alice ('Nanny'), Dr Kent Hughes combined medical practice (with Roger Mallam) and community service. In the meantime, her husband founded a succesful stock and station agency.

Kenty 'never found that being a woman had the slightest adverse effect' on her career. Honorary paediatrician at the Armidale and New England Hospital, government medical officer and a justice of the peace, she was 'tireless in her ministrations', 'firm in her admonitions' and resolute in answering calls. She published two articles in the Medical Journal of Australia, 'Observations on Congenital Syphilis' (1919) and 'The Role of the Private Practitioner in Preventive Medicine' (1967).

Aboriginal women had nursed her Hughes grandmother near Armidale after the loss of her first child. Ellen felt a long-standing debt to their people. One of her chief cares was the health of the local Aboriginal community, especially the mothers and children. Here Kenty worked with Emma Callaghan in the late twenties and earlier thirties.

In 1968 Kenty was awarded an MBE for community services and especially her services to Aboriginal children.

As Alderman Wilson she served (1937-68) on the Armidale City Council (deputy-mayor 1963-64); she pursued such causes as urban beautification and housing for Aborigines with characteristic persistence, especially if she sensed male indifference.

In 1975, Kenty qualified as a fellow of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in 1971 and was granted the freedom of the city of Armidale in 1975. In its motion, the City Council determined:

That the Freedom of the City of Armidale be confered by this Council on Dr E. M. Hughes for the many years of unselfish and unstinting service to the community as a medical practioner, an Alderman of the Council, a citizen, a tireless adviser to all sections of the public, the young as well as the old, for qualities of kindness, tolerance and candid approach which have endeared her to many people over many years, and for her active participation in civic affairs contributed over a period of 30 years.

Lionel goes on: although she was criticized for her moral and maternalistic views, she retained wide respect and affection: her twinkling eyes and wide smile softened her brusque manner.

I think that this is a pretty fair assessment.

As the Armidale City Council motion said in one of those lines that could only really be understood by locals, Kenty could be candid. She was my doctor for a brief period when I was a young and, frankly, I was terrified of her. Mind you, I cannot say that this is quite what I felt at the time because it is a composite of memories.

Later in the early 1960s when the Council of the University of New England decided to banish room visiting between members of the opposite sexes, this decision was widely attributed to Kenty's concerns about student pregnancy. The decision generated major and continuing student protests and was ulimately revoked.

Kenty worshipped for fifty years at St Peter's Cathedral and was a member of its parish council. A devout Anglo-Catholic, she donated Eucharistic vestments to St Mary's Church, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and invited home a succession of curates to give them 'the once over'!

Her physician ordered her to retire in 1977. Survived by her five children, she died on 16 May 1979 at Armidale. In 1990 her residence was opened as Kent House, a community centre.

Looking back at Kenty, my main feeling is one of awe. I knew that she was a strong woman. I had no idea of the breadth of her interests, or the role that she played.


Sonia Ennals said...

This is my grandmother. This tallies with the stories of Kenty that my mum passed on. She was pretty formidable. She had a surgery at her home on her veranda. I went to visit Aboriginal mums with her when I was a child. She was well meant but clearly of an earlier generation. We even had the stories of the curates!

Sonia Ennals (daughter of Judith Garde Wilson)

Jim Belshaw said...

How fascinating, Sonia. The old family home is now a community centre carrying the titles Kent House and Hughes House.

Barbara Peattie said...

Kenty was also my grandmother and I Sonia's cousin. We grew up in awe of this woman who would dispense lectures on moral virtues and christian devotion quite regularly. We assisted with surgery "on the verandah" fetching and carrying and helping with poultices and plaster casts. We on occasion were taken to visit the children's wards at the hospital and felt very important! I'm sure Granny was influential in my career path in allied health! She was an amazing woman with a strong pioneering spirit.

Jim Belshaw said...

What an interesting comment, Barbara! She was an amazing woman.

Unknown said...

There is a book by a physician named Mary Kent Hughes, published 1950, called Pioneer Doctor, about John Singleton, an early Australian physician. This Mary Kent Hughes was the granddaughter of John Singleton's daughter, Mary Quinn, who married Desmond Graham or Dilmond Humes. I'm puzzled, but think this must be a different Mary Kent Hughes, because I believe Kenty's grandparents were Charles Hughes and Ellen Mann, and Alfred Rankin and Ellen Shalders (also my ancestors, hence my interest). Anyone know? If any of the two descendants who posted here are interested, I have photos of their Rankin ancestors posted on ancestry.com

Unknown said...

Continued from the post above: if it doesn't show through, you are welcome to contact me at julbrown@uw.edu. I'd love to flesh out this side of my family tree, and link you to mine (for free). Julie

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, Julie. I hope that Sonia & Barbara saw your comment.

judy whiting said...

Yet another granddaughter of Kentys (Judy Garde Wilson, not Sonias mother but another cousin)I lived in Armidale and spent many hours with gran who to me was a truly awesome lady, yes she could be scary but she could also be a very caring person.She was also the worlds worst driver! Barbie and I have spent the weekend going over the family history that we have from our Uncle David and yes ellen man was grans grandmother. The Mary Kent Hughes that you have referred to is in fact grans step mother mark 2, the third wife of Wilfrid Kent Hughes. She was a widow ?Thornton with a son Graeme. We would love some info on Clementina Rankin as that page is missing from our notes. One of us will contact you on your e-mail address

Jim Belshaw said...

A belated thank you, Judy, for following up.