Dr Ellen Kent Hughes: Equality Pioneer

Published: 6th July 2023

By Kelly James / LGAQ Social Media and Corporate Communications Advisor

On the Centenary of Dr Ellen Kent Hughes’ historic election to Kingaroy Shire Council, we examine the life and legacy of this remarkable woman who was passionate about improving lives and her community, and who was ahead of her time in more ways than one.

Dr Ellen Kent Hughes. Image: State Library of Queensland

Dr Ellen Kent Hughes. Image: State Library of Queensland

Ellen Mary Kent Hughes came into the world on 29 August 1893 in Fitzroy, Melbourne—a long way from Kingaroy Shire, Queensland, where she would later make history. Ellen was the eldest of seven children of Wilfred Kent Hughes, a prominent surgeon, and his wife Clementina Rankin, who had been a nurse in England. With medicine in her DNA, she enrolled at the University of Melbourne in 1913, residing at Trinity College Hostel and successfully obtaining her M.B.B.S. degree in 1917.

In July that same year she married Paul René Loubet, a medical assistant at the Children's Hospital in Melbourne. Tragically, their union was cut short when Loubet passed away a mere three months after their wedding. With the responsibility of their unborn child now hers to bear alone, Ellen—with help from her colleagues—found work at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital for Women and Children in Melbourne before moving to Brisbane in 1918 to take up a role as resident medical officer at the Hospital for Sick Children. Here, she was responsible for 200 very sick children during the influenza and diphtheria epidemics of 1919, while her own son was cared for by his nanny.

Eventually, Ellen took a locum job in Mitchell, west of Brisbane where she met Francis Garde Wesley Wilson and married him in August 1920. The couple had four children together and the family (including her son with her late husband) moved to Kingaroy.

Pioneering Queensland local government

The year 1923 marked a significant turning point in Queensland's history as Ellen Mary Kent Hughes made history by becoming the first woman elected to council in the state.

Nominated by the Queensland Country Women's Association and the Queensland Women's Electoral League, she secured her position on the Kingaroy Shire Council in an extraordinary election held on 7 July 1923.

While her election challenged traditional gender roles and expectations of the time, local newspaper reports show how well-regarded she was in council and the community, with one headline dubbing her ‘Lady Successful’. In an article in the Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser on 26 July 1923, a report from Shire Council’s first meeting following the election described the new councillors as having proved themselves worthy of election, going on to praise Ellen directly with: “Especially may this be said of Councillor Mrs Kent-Wilson, the first lady to be elected to a Shire Council in Queensland if not the Commonwealth.

“Councillor Wilson proved herself to be quite conversant with all matters pertaining to the Shire and a tower of strength to even old councillors."

South Burnett Regional Council Mayor Brett Otto told Council Leader the Kingaroy and broader South Burnett Community is “immensely proud of the achievements of Dr Kent Hughes”.

“She was a pioneering woman in both rural primary health care and local community governance and has left an indelible mark on our local community,” Cr Otto said.

Dual roles: doctor and council member

Known as Ellen Wilson in her local government roles while practicing medicine as Ellen Kent Hughes, she seamlessly transitioned between her dual responsibilities, leaving an enduring mark on both fields.

Ellen's continued commitment to healthcare extended beyond her medical practice after entering local government, as she took on the role of medical officer to the Kingaroy Shire Council. Her efforts to improve sanitation and safeguard public health in the town are well-documented. In a report to the council, she highlighted the need for proper hygiene and cleanliness, specifically addressing the water supply and inadequate cleaning of closets at the local school as the likely source of contamination leading to an outbreak of typhoid.

Ellen’s contributions to Australian local government extended beyond her ground-breaking tenure on the Kingaroy Shire Council. After leaving Queensland in 1928, she served on the Armidale City Council from 1937 to 1968, even holding the position of deputy mayor from 1963 to 1964.

In 1937, the Armidale municipal election results no doubt resulted in some awkwardness in the Hughes-Wilson household. Both Ellen and her husband, Francis Wilson, were candidates, however only Ellen was elected. The headline in the Daily Examiner following the elections read, ‘Wife Elected, Husband Defeated’. 

Although her very full career was uncommon for women at the time, Ellen apparently 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 has been described as 'tireless in her ministrations', 'firm in her admonitions' and ‘resolute in answering calls’. She also had two articles published in the Medical Journal of Australia many decades apart: 'Observations on Congenital Syphilis' (1919) and 'The Role of the Private Practitioner in Preventive Medicine' (1967).

Advice for single women

Ellen married twice and raised a large family, going on to have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, yet she certainly didn’t encourage young women to settle. In fact, a Macleay Argus newspaper article from 1952 titled ‘Lady Dr. on Romanticism’, provides some wisdom for doctors to impart to single women patients. The full article reads:

Single women should not feel unhappy because they could not find husbands, Dr. Ellen Kent Hughes told the Australian Medical Congress in Melbourne.

They might change their minds if they realised how unattractive their friends' husbands were, she said.

Dr. Kent Hughes, a New South Wales delegate to the Congress, continued: "Doctors should point out to unhappy single girls the unattractive husbands of their friends.

"They should ask the Women whether they would really like to exchange their freedom to get his breakfast, listen to his growls and darn his socks."

Dr. Kent Hughes said doctors should discourage single women from reading romantic fiction.

"These women seek comfort and entertainment, but often confuse fantasy with fact," she said.

"Popular magazines crammed with silly love stories cause much unpractical romantic yearning.

"Many girls who read them are devoted daughters who have become slaves of feeble and querulous parents."

Dr. Kent Hughes added: "Judicious teasing often arouses a somewhat latent sense of humour in single women.

"A woman with a sense of humour rarely passes through the portals of a mental home."

An enduring legacy

Ellen Mary Kent Hughes's remarkable journey and outstanding contributions to Queensland local government and the medical profession were celebrated throughout her life and continue to be honoured today. Her former residence, Kent House in Armadale, now stands as a community centre, a testament to her commitment to improving the communities she lived in and served, while in Kingaroy, a memorial plaque paying homage to her pioneering spirit and contributions to local government stands in O’Neill Square.

The South Burnett Regional Council Chambers' forecourt was named in her honour, commemorating her role as the first woman elected to the Kingaroy Shire Council. Furthermore, a scholarship was established in her name in 2016, to encourage young women of the South Burnett Region, where Hughes had been a young doctor, to pursue a tertiary education. The Dr Ellen Mary Kent Hughes Memorial Scholarship provides $5,000 to support the recipient of the bursary in her chosen area of study.

Ellen Mary Kent Hughes, a trailblazer in the realms of local government and medicine, shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for future generations. Her unwavering dedication to public service and commitment to public health and improving lives continues to inspire and empower future leaders, even now, 100 years on from her extraordinary election.