Lady Cilento's Bio



Phyllis as a young medical student at
the University of Adelaide
Lady Phyllis Cilento belonged to one of Australia's most prominent families, with a long history of public service and innovation. She was a household name in Brisbane for half a century, as an obstetrician, paediatrician, author, journalist, columnist, ABC broadcaster and women's activist. Her early work also involved helping save countless women and children’s lives in the Tropics, including Malaysia and New Guinea by bringing modern medicine to local communities. Later, her pioneering work and advocacy of good nutrition, family planning and child care improved Queenslanders’ lives immeasurably. This was all achieved along with raising six children and marriage to a fellow doctor and barrister with his own high profile career.

Sir Raphael Cilento was Director for Refugees and Displaced Persons at the United Nations in New York, and Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) where he achieved international fame after the Second World War for his work in aiding refugees, saving thousands of lives by controlling outbreaks of typhoid and cholera as well as malaria in The Balkans. He was the first civilian doctor to lead WHO medical teams to enter the Belsen concentration camp and help save the lives of the Jewish survivors. In Australia, he was the Director-General of Queensland Health and Medical Services where he implemented the world's first universally free public health care system and combined this role with President of the state's Medical Board as well as Professor of Medicine at the University of Queensland.

Sir Raphael and Lady Cilento
presented to the Queen
Lady Cilento was the only woman graduating as a medical doctor in her year at the University of Adelaide in 1918 ~ exactly a century ago this week ~ along with her future husband. She went on to do postgraduate work at hospitals and clinics in Malaysia, New Guinea, London, Paris and New York. Later she became a prominent member of the Queensland women's movement and highly influential in women's and children's public health. Her pioneering work centred around mother and child care, family planning and nutrition. She was ahead of her time in advocating natural childbirth, contraception, the legalisation of abortion and that fathers be present at the birth of their children. She founded the Queensland Mothercraft Association, the Queensland branch of the Business and Professional Women's Club and was President of the Queensland Medical Women's Association.

Lady Cilento wrote twenty-four books and for more than fifty years she penned articles as a columnist about health, medical innovations and mother and child care for magazines and newspapers as well broadcasting two programs a week on ABC Radio. She had many awards during her long life, including Queenslander of the Year and was awarded life membership of the Australian Medical Association. Of her six children, four became doctors ~ David, Carl, Ruth and Raf ~ while one became an artist of international repute, Margaret Cilento, with works in all of Australia's major public galleries and Diane Cilento became a famous Tony Award winning and Oscar nominated stage and screen actor who married Sean Connery.

Widely known as “Lady C”, Phyllis Cilento had a direct gaze, a strong presence, an outgoing, warm and friendly personality, and an immense enthusiasm for life, her work and her family and a lively sense of humour. As well as her own family that live all around the world, she has twenty-seven grand-children and forty-two great-grandchildren.


Phyllis dressed for her
coming out ball in Adelaide
As an only child born into the late Victorian society of Sydney, the young Lady Phyllis Dorothy Cilento was expected to grow up to be a wife and mother. But she managed to break free from late 19th Century and Edwardian mores to be a pioneer in every aspect of her career and life, studying in London, Paris and New York and contributing greatly to the medical and public life of Queensland as a leading paediatrician, author, broadcaster, journalist and feminist as well as having a husband with a demanding career and raising six children. She often said because her father had always wanted a son she was brought up with both a lot more freedom but also opportunities to develop her talents that was very unusual for girls in the early 20th Century.

The basis for her robust health, discipline and indomitable energy she said was built on the tough physical training her father insisted she had as a little girl, from gymnastics to rowing and cycling: "Even though I was a girl and not the boy my father hoped for, he was determined not to neglect my physical education. I had a rigorous regime of morning exercises from the age of six. Besides skipping 1000 times without stopping, I had to exercise with dumb-bells and swing golf clubs before taking a cold shower."

Although she was born in Sydney in 1894, Lady Cilento grew up in Adelaide at a lovely old, stone Colonial house called Woodspring surrounded by verandahs and set in rolling green lawns shaded by fruit trees. Her father Charles Thomas McGlew was appointed Russian Consul in 1912 and was a pioneering businessman, an officer in the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and grain merchant ~ he was the first person to export barley from Australia ~ and established the salt industry in South Australia. Charles was the son of Cornelius Stanley McGlew, an English-born mining surveyor and inventor who is notable for his mineral discoveries in New South Wales and Queensland, particularly of tin deposits, and whose name is remembered by McGlew Street in Stanthorpe.

Young Phyllis inherited her father's vigorous and adventurous spirit. By seven years old, she was enrolled at a progressive school for young ladies called Tormore House in Hill Street, North Adelaide where the curriculum and teaching were influenced by the latest ideas on education from Britain and Europe combined with a new emphasis on athletics for girls. At the end of her last year, she was nominated as Dux of the school and was presented with a gold medal engraved with the school's motto Aspice Finem ("Look Towards the Goal").


She found enrolling as a university student a great adventure and chose to study Modern European History. But Phyllis discovered that she needed senior maths, Latin and Greek for her Arts degree. So as well as her history lectures she went to tutors, studied hard and passed all three subjects in the November examinations. She was one of only a handful of women enrolled in any of the courses at the University of Adelaide, the buildings forming a nucleus in the heart of the town: "When I was a student at Adelaide university from 1912 until 1918, it consisted of one building on North Terrace wedged between the Art Gallery and Elder Conservatorium whose Great Hall for years acted as the main auditorium for both."
Phyllis as a fourteen year old
school girl at Tormore House

Phyllis also continued to study painting and drawing at the School of Arts, which she had been doing since the age of fourteen. At the university, she was very athletic and played different sports at a competitive level: "We women played interstate hockey and tennis. I captained the women's tennis team for three years, travelling to Sydney and Melbourne and won my 'blue' ~ an embroidered magpie on the pocket of a blue blazer."

As a student, Phyllis had to decide if she was continue with her Arts degree with the aim of going to study in Paris or she could change direction and enrol in Medicine. "I had to make my decision there and then before the university year began," she wrote later. "I could continue with Arts and my painting with the prospect of study overseas or I could enrol for Medicine. However, for medicine I must complete a year of science before even qualifying as a medical student and then five years of gruelling study. Could I face it? How would my mother and father take my change of direction?"

Her parents supported her decision and as she had just won a Commercial Traveller's scholarship for three years at the university, the cost would be eased. She studied medicine all through the war from 1914-1918 and graduated as the only woman in her year (see image above). Her father was the honorary Russian Consul for South Australia by this time and Phyllis was both medical student and host with her mother of garden parties for military personnel and the Red Cross at her beautiful early Victorian home Woodspring in Unley Park.

Phyllis was also one of the first women in Adelaide to drive a car and this gave her a great sense of independence and freedom. She later not only drove all over the world including London and Rome but she kept her international drivers-licence until her nineties. "When I was twenty-one my father gave me a little Saxon car, one of the first Australian-made cars," she said. "I was the only student with a car and my running board was always loaded with students on daily trips from the Medical School to the hospital along North Terrace."

By 1918, she had become engaged to Sir Raphael Cilento, a star medical student at the University of Adelaide, who she used to spar with during anatomy classes. It was a romance that combined both mutual respect and a shared vision about improving people's lives that would last 65 years. It was idealistic but built on a mutual passion for the healing powers of medicine, eliminating diseases rife at the time and enhancing the lives of women and children by education and political and institutional changes. She wrote later that as medical students: "We did our courting walking around the pleasant streets of Unley Park in Adelaide where I lived, discussing examination papers and hearing out each other out on the symptoms of typhoid, the treatment of pneumonia and the dosage of common drugs."


After graduating from the University of Adelaide as a M.B.B.S. she worked as a house surgeon at the Adelaide Hospital. In 1919, the now Dr McGlew accompanied her mother Alice to Britain to be reunited with her father, who had served in France in World War I. Her parents separated soon after and she determined never to be economically dependent on her future husband. "Even though I was twenty five years old and a graduate, the break up of my parents marriage affected me deeply," she said. "Then and there I determined never to be in the position in which I saw my mother. If and when I had daughters of my own I determined they must be trained in some skills that would enable them to live independently and with dignity in a satisfying profession."

Phyllis, husband Raphael and
baby Raffles in Malaya
While she was in London, in order to further her education the young doctor enlisted as a clinical clerk to Sir Frederick Still at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children under the direct supervision of Dr Donald Patterson, the Medical Superintendent. It was here that she first became interested in nutrition as the wards were full of people with rickets at all stages. Sir Frederick was very influential in her future career and she studied his text books written about childhood disease and those of Donald Patterson on infant feeding. She also attended the Marylebone Medical Mission Dispensary where Dr Eric Pritchard lectured and held clinics on infant care.

After Dr McGlew's postgraduate studies were completed in London, her father insisted that her education would not be complete without travelling through Europe. She set out on a trip that would include Belgium, Holland, the French Riviera and Monte Carlo and later met up with her father and friends in Venice for Christmas. But she found the first part of the trip taken through war-torn France very harrowing.

"Armed with passports for France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Italy, we set off on the first leg of our journey," she would write later. "In Paris, my father had arranged for a private car to take us through France with a special permit to drive through the still-untouched battlefields. The driver was a young Englishman who had been a motor bike dispatch rider in France during the war. We travelled for days through the utter devastation of the battlefields, seeing depressed people with hand-drawn carts piled high with belongings during the day and in the early evening a few fitful lights gleaming from cellars below the ruined houses. Never in my life before or since have I felt so cold, hopeless and depressed as during that trip through the battlefields."

When she returned to London she had to start thinking about returning to Australia and her impending marriage to Raphael Cilento, after more than a year and a half of separation: "I was however in no mood for marriage," she reflected afterwards. "I had attended more lectures and discussions on freedom of choice and individual development and was in a thoroughly rebellious frame of mind. To assert my independence I went to a Regent Street hairstylist and had my hair cut off to a short page-boy cut that shocked my fiancé when we returned after eighteen months of separation."

But a month later she was back in Adelaide and she found that she was actually delighted to be reunited with her future husband who was also very persuasive. She married him on the 18th of March 1920 at St Columba’s Church of England, Hawthorn: "The informal wedding breakfast was held in the open on the smooth lawns of Woodspring, surrounded by fragrant pittosporum trees and with white fan tail pigeons circling overhead." Soon the young couple had set up in general practice together in Adelaide but it was not long before they were heading overseas for medical posts in Malaysia.


Raphael Cilento at the hospital
in Agita in New Guinea
In October that same year, the Cilentos sailed for Perak, in the Federated Malay States. While Raphael worked as a physician to the sultanate, Phyllis worked as a medical officer in the British colonial service and took charge of the women’s ward in a hospital at Teluk Anson (Teluk Intan). "As Medical Superintendent, Raphael introduced a new woman's ward, which was my special field," she wrote. "Women of all backgrounds came from far and near for advice. The women I treated formed a very good cross section of society in the Malay states, including Indian women of different sects and castes, all graceful in their clinging saris and with a matter of fact attitude to their illness."

By 1921, the head of the Commonwealth Department of Health, came to Malaya to ask Raphael Cilento to become Director of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Townsville. In preparation, he was to study tropical diseases in different countries and tropical medicine and hygiene at the London School of Tropical Medicine. The young couple would be separated again for a year as Phyllis was returning to Australia with baby Raf in December, the first of her six children to be born.

While her husband was studying in England, Phyllis undertook a course in public health at the University of Sydney. Late in 1922, she joined him at Townsville in Queensland, and next year, shortly after the birth of their second child, they moved to Rabaul in New Guinea, where she worked in private practice and Sir Raphael was the Director General of Health: "At the end of 1923 my husband was seconded by the Commonwealth Department of Health to the territory of New Guinea as Director General of Health," she remembered. "Under the United Nations Mandate, Australia was committed to promote and maintain the health of the population and Dr Raphael Cilento with his expert qualifications in tropical medicine, seemed the best person to undertake the task."

Phyllis with her children in the garden
of her house Namanula in Rabaul, New Guinea

By 1928, the growing Cilento family were back in Australia and settled in Brisbane and Phyllis was a physician at the Hospital for Sick Children where she showed her remarkable affinity with both mothers and children. Throughout her long career she continued to take advanced training in Australia, Britain, the United States of America and New Zealand, including a short course with Grantly Dick Read, a proponent of natural childbirth.

Also by 1928, she had started contributing articles on mothers and children's health to magazines and soon after began writing a weekly column under the nom-de-plume Dr Phyl, Mother M.D. and Medical Mother while working as a general practitioner, with an active obstetric practice. Her surgery was attached to her Annerley home, allowing her to look after her large household that not only included her children but two grand-mothers and other relatives plus her secretary and staff. For more than twenty years, until the 1960s, she was also a specialist lecturer in mothercraft at the University of Queensland. Wherever she was in the world, she continued to write her weekly columns for the Brisbane Daily Mail and the Courier-Mail and a wide range of national magazines until the 1980s, when she was in her nineties.

Lady Cilento working on an article
as Mother MD in Brisbane
She wrote about nutrition, the health of mothers and children and all aspects of child care. Her writing showed her outstanding facility to communicate complex medical facts to readers. She was particularly interested in promoting good nutrition, family planning and raising happy, healthy children. She expanded her outreach through books and radio, and was widely respected by women for her practical advice. She was a strong advocate of the benefit of vitamins. She also began weekly talks on medical matters and mothercraft for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) . She conducted regular radio sessions and was soon offered a second question and answer program each week that was broadcast for many years.

"I took the nom-de-plume "Mother MD" and I used to drive to the city two mornings a week," she said. "The ABC was then a small establishment occupying the top floor of the Treasury Building on the corner of George Street. At the beginning, there were few set programmes just some talks like mine and sessions devoted to music."

By 1933, she had published her first book and went on to write twenty-four more books on a wide range of subjects from mother and children's health to parenthood, family planning and nutrition up until her autobiography written in 1987 when she was 93 years old.


Lady Cilento was involved in a wide range of medical and community organisations. She was inaugural president in 1929 of the Queensland Medical Women’s Society and by 1931 she had founded the Mothercraft Association of Queensland, serving as president until 1946; she considered that the association was her greatest contribution to social welfare in Queensland as it improved so many families lives, especially women and children.

The doctor and young mother
demonstrating how to bathe a
baby correctly for the Woman’s Mirror
She was active for many years in the National Council of Women of Queensland and she was also president of the local branch of the Business and Professional Women’s Association in 1948 and of the Lyceum Club 1951-52. She was a member of the inaugural council of the Family Planning Association of Queensland, and also a member of the Creche & Kindergarten Association of Queensland.

Later in her career, Lady Cilento became increasingly interested in the role of nutrition and vitamins in health. She had used Alpha-Tocopherol (vitamin E) to soften scar tissue in her patients and was concerned over the increasing death rate from coronary blockages. She surveyed the scientific literature on vitamin E, including studies showing its benefits in preventing blood clots. In the early 1970s, Dr. Cilento decided to travel the world to investigate vitamin E therapy. Her travels took her to Singapore, Germany, Britain and North America, where she interviewed doctors who used Vitamin E in therapeutic doses.

Observing that the Heart Foundation of Australia had refused to investigate the role of Vitamin E in cardiovascular disease, Dr. Cilento wrote: "I am reminded of the many other occasions when life-saving innovations were delayed for years by the irrational conservatism of the medical establishment. I myself was ridiculed and dismissed by a distinguished medical teacher when in 1919, I advocated Vitamin D for cases of severe rickets. I was laughed at even though, at that time, the vitamin was curing starving babies in war-torn Vienna of this deforming disease."

Many in the medical profession saw Lady Cilento as a woman ahead of her time. She stated in 1987 that much she had fought for such as natural childbirth, family planning, and permitting fathers to be present at the birth of their children was accepted as an integral part of life now. In 1971, the Brisbane City Mission publicly recognised her work with a citation signed by the premier and representatives of many churches and social organisations. She said that it was the honour that she prized more than any other.

In 1974, she was selected as first Queensland Mother of the Year. In 1977, a special resource centre for parents was named after her and an award established by the Nutritional Foods Association of Australia. She was elected in 1979 as a fellow of the International Academy of Preventive Medicine and a life member in 1980 of the Australian Medical Association. She was the first Queenslander of the Year in 1981 and Queensland Senior Citizen of the Year in 1987. She was awarded a medal of merit by the Australian chapter of the Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth, and was named in 1982 as Loyal Australian of the Year by the Assembly of European Nations. In 2013, the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, Brisbane was named in her honour.


In 1971 the Brisbane City Mission presented her with a citation signed by the Queensland Premier and many church and community organisations.

In 1974 she was declared to be Queensland Mother of the Year.

In 1977 her name was used for an award bestowed by the Nutritional Foods Association of Australia. The Lady Cilento Parenting Centre in Brisbane was named after her.

In 1979 she became a Fellow of the International Academy of Preventive Medicine.

In 1980 she was awarded life membership of the Australian Medical Association.

In 1981 she was named Queenslander of the Year.

In 1982 she was named Loyal Australian of the Year by the Assembly of European Nations.

In 1987 she was named Queensland Senior Citizen of the Year.

In 1987 she was awarded a medal of merit by the Australian chapter of the Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth.

In 2013 the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, Brisbane was named in her honour.


Square Meals for the Family (1933)
The Emergency Care of Children (1940)
A Code for Teenagers and Their Parents (1963)
Enjoy Your Family: a Guide to Parenthood (1964)
Plan Your Family : Practical Birth Control (1965)
Mothercraft in Queensland : A Story of Progress and Achievement (1967)
Vitamins and You (1971)
All About the Pill (1971)
All About Drugs (1972)
Care For Your Eyes (1972)
The Versatile Vitamin: Vitamin E (1976)
You Don't Have to Live with Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies (1977)
We Are What We Eat (1977)
You Don't Have to Live with Chronic Ill Health (1977)
You Don't Have to Live with Ailing Heart and Blood Vessels (1977)
You Can't Live without Vitamin C (1979)
Medical Mother (1982)
Collection of Essays (1984)
her autobiography, Lady Cilento M.B. B.S.: My Life (1987)