In medicine, Dr. Emma Constance Stone went first

How Australia's first female practising doctor carved her own path and created spaces for women to heal.

By Emily Brooks


How Australia's first female practising doctor carved her own path and created spaces for women to heal.

By Emily Brooks

The author and advocate Gloria Steinem often talks about the power of talking circles; where women share not only a physical space, but their individual stories with one another. These stories allow one to feel less alone and often help the collective effect great change. When examining the life of Dr. Emma Constance Stone it is difficult not to think about talking circles. While the first woman to practise medicine in Australia didn’t sit cross-legged in a room with a handful of other women, she did harness the precious power of the collective, creating spaces for women to talk, to build things together and, perhaps most importantly, to heal. 

Dr. Emma Constance Stone, known to most as Constance, was born in Hobart in 1856. Raised by her parents, William and Betsy Stone, she was the eldest of six children who grew up with a decent dose of privilege. While Constance and her youngest sister, Grace Clara, did not attend school with their four brothers, they received a quality education at home with their mother who was a former governess. 

Anatomy was something Constance showed an interest in from an early age but the times forced her to take a different path. She became, like so many other middle class women, a primary school teacher. Her family had relocated to Melbourne by this time and it was here she met a young Welsh clergyman named David Egryn Jones. As the pair grew closer, David confessed to Constance that he wanted to become a doctor. Constance confessed that she wanted to become one too. 

Australian postage stamp from 1990 celebrating Dr. Constance Stone. Image credit: Adobe Stock

At the time of this confession, women had only just begun to be accepted into universities around the nation, but many courses such as medicine were still out of bounds. In 1884, after Stone was unable to apply for The University of Melbourne’s medical course, she decided to go overseas. She completed a three-year degree at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in the United States and continued her study at the University of Trinity College in Toronto, Canada, where she graduated in 1888 with first class honours. She then travelled to the UK to study at the New Hospital for Women in London, where she worked with the famous Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and qualified as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. 

As Constance moved through three different countries to pursue this long held dream, David Egryn Jones followed. He could have studied medicine in Melbourne, but the former clergyman chose the United States and Canada, far from home but close to the one he loved. And in 1893 – after knowing each other for a decade, studying all over the world together, and returning home to Melbourne – the two wed.


“Her charming personality and her knowledge were the means of drawing many into the woman suffrage movement.”


It was 1890 when Dr. Constance Stone became the first woman to be registered with the Medical Board of Victoria and, with that, Australia’s first female practising doctor. One year later, her younger sister, known to most as Clara, became the first woman to graduate medicine from The University of Melbourne. While Constance was studying in the United States, Clara — inspired by her sister’s dogged pursuit of this field — had successfully petitioned her way into the medical school. And once they were both practising doctors, the two opened a private practice together. 

During this era, women did not yet have the right to vote. This was one of the many social justice issues that drove Dr. Constance Stone in both her life and work. She advocated for women’s suffrage, campaigned for improved education for girls, and operated free clinics in low income areas, giving women – no matter their socio economic status – the opportunity to be treated in private, without being examined by a male doctor. 

As Alice Henry once said at a women’s rally in Melbourne in 1933, ‘Dr Constance Stone, through her medical practice, had become aware of the numerous disabilities with which women had to contend with owing to having no voice in making laws which they must obey, and she joined with her friends in advocating equality of treatment.’ Henry continued: ‘Her charming personality and her knowledge were the means of drawing many into the woman suffrage movement.’

In 1895, Stone founded the Victorian Medical Women’s Society, holding the very first meeting at her home in March. She told the women in this room about the New Hospital for Women in London, which was staffed entirely by women and treated only women patients. As this group of women continued to meet and talk, an idea emerged. And at a meeting held on September 5, 1896, Constance and eleven women doctors decided to set up a hospital of their own — a hospital run entirely by women, for women. 

The Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne still stands tall today. It was established in 1896 as the Victoria Hospital for Women and Children and began as a clinic in a local church hall. After Dr. Constance Stone and these eleven women raised £3,000 in funds for the hospital through a jubilee ‘shilling fund’, the Queen Victoria Hospital officially opened its doors in 1899. There were eight beds, an ante-natal clinic and an operating theatre. And it became one of three hospitals around the world that was exclusively funded, managed and staffed by women. 

While she improved the quality of life for thousands of women around the nation, Dr. Emma Constance Stone’s life was cut short when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died at the tender age of 45, but her legacy remains felt in every room and corridor of the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne, where women and children continue to be treated privately, with dignity, every day.

Jobs for the girls is a newsletter series celebrating the women who became trailblazers in their industries. This series is proudly supported by Victoria Police, who are looking for more women to join their ranks. To explore a career with Victoria Police, click here.