Pioneering Women: Dr Barbara Burge

When Dr Barbara Burge started her general practice training in Queensland in the 1950s, it was certainly not the typical thing for a young woman to do, as evidenced by some dubious wisdom she received at home. 

‘My father said I would only get married, so the training was a waste of time and money,’ she told the RACGP. 

However, Dr Burge persevered and these less-than-encouraging words would ultimately prove to have the opposite effect on her journey. 

‘Every time things got a bit tough in my career and I thought I might give it up, I could hear his words ringing in my ears,’ Dr Burge said. ‘I decided I would definitely not let his words come true.’ 

Today, female GPs outnumber their male colleagues, and RACGP membership now consists of 50.2% women. But, in 1950s Australia, general practice training was definitively male-dominated. 

‘There were 10 women in my year and approximately 100 men. We always occupied the front seat in lectures,’ Dr Burge said. 

‘One of the lecturers once came in and said, “Gentlemen”, and he forgot all about us in the front seats. So we put up our hands and said, “We’re here!”’ 

While she walked a tough path in what had always been a man’s domain, Dr Burge feels it was actually an advantage to be a female GP. From the start of her time in practice, she found female patients appreciated having a doctor to whom they could relate and discuss more sensitive healthcare matters. Dr Burge’s early female patients showed their appreciation by often going to great lengths to access the type of care people now (happily) take for granted. 

The RACGP in the mid-1970s, around the time Dr Burge first moved to Melbourne to pursue her career in general practice. 

‘Even when I first came to Melbourne in 1974, women patients would cross the city to see a woman GP. They certainly don’t have to do that now,’ Dr Burge said. 

Although Dr Burge doesn’t recall much discrimination from her time in Canberra, she did feel it a little more when she and her husband moved to Melbourne in 1974. But, true to form, she didn’t let such attitudes hold her back and became one of the first two doctors appointed at the Kensington Community Health Centre in north-west Melbourne, where she made an immediate impact. 

‘I went in with blind ignorance and asked if I could set up a liaison to look after antenatal patients in Kensington,’ she said. ‘I think they were so shocked and so sure it would have to fail, that they let me try. 

‘In fact, it was very successful and very much appreciated by the patients.’ 

When reflecting on the large numbers of female GPs that swell the ranks today, Dr Burge feels the same promise that attracted her to general practice has again proven itself. 

‘General practice has lived up to its reputation, in my opinion, of being good for women as a career,’ she said. 

She has found great satisfaction in her long career as a GP and does not regret her decision, all those years ago, to choose general practice instead of another specialty. 

And as for her father, her earliest critic? He became a convert, too. 

‘Nobody could have been prouder when I graduated,’ she said.

Blog Post created by RACGP Media on 18-Aug-2017
The first in a series of articles about the RACGP’s first female members and their experiences as GPs in a very different time.