Phyllis Cilento (1894-1987) doctor | 200 Australian Women

Phyllis Cilento

Phyllis Dorothy Cilento (1894-1987), medical practitioner, was born in Sydney on 13 March 1894, only child of Alice Lane (born Walker) and Charles Thomas McGlew, grain merchant. The family moved to Adelaide where Phyllis was educated at the progressive Tormore House school and the University of Adelaide. She entered as an Arts student and graduated MB BS in 1918. She also studied art and joined the Student Christian Movement. Phyllis always remained interested in religion, though preferring broadly-based Christian philosophies to denominational adherence. She did her residency at Adelaide Hospital before leaving for postgraduate study in paediatrics with Sir Frederick Still at Great Ormond St Hospital for Sick Children, London. Her lifelong clinical interests in nutritional disorders and the care of pregnant women and children dates from this period. She studied the use of vitamin D and sunlight to treat rickets. Her determined investigation of vitamin therapy in the face of conservative opposition was a leitmotiv of her life.

Phyllis McGlew returned to Adelaide to marry fellow student Raphael West Cilento on 18 March 1920. While serving in New Guinea he had become interested in tropical medicine; they went to the Malay States, where he was appointed medical officer in the British Colonial Service. As Lady Medical Officer, Lower Perak, Phyllis became one of the first women to hold a medical appointment in the British Colonial Service. In Sydney in 1923 for the birth of her second child, she studied new methods of family planning - another lifelong interest. The Cilentos moved to Townsville in 1923, when Raphael became Director of the Institute of Tropical Medicine. Phyllis had decided to remain in practice but her time there was notable for her commonsense campaign, the first of many, to persuade women to adopt loose-fitting clothing in the tropics. Her third child was born in 1925.

Following an appointment for Raphael in New Guinea, Phyllis became interested in the medical problems of children of malarial mothers. She went to Brisbane on her husband's appointment as Commonwealth Medical Officer and then as Queensland Director-General of Health and was largely responsible for establishing the Queensland Mothercraft Association. Its educational activities she regarded as her 'greatest contribution to social welfare in Queensland'. Three more children were born in Brisbane. Raphael was knighted in 1935.

In addition to private practice and an honorary appointment at the Children's Hospital, Lady Cilento contributed articles on medical subjects to newspapers. Her 'Medical Mother' column in the Daily Mail and then in the Courier Mail ran for over 50 years and established her as a remarkable communicator and educator. Her Square Meals for the Family (1934) written during the depression was a practical guide to inexpensive nutrition. She also published Enjoy your Family (1964), Plan your Family (1965), All about the Pill (1971), Drugs in Australia (1972) and Vitamin E (1980). She was foundation president of the Business and Professional Women's Club, Brisbane, in 1948.

Lady Cilento was an advocate of physiotherapy in preparation for childbirth. She taught the Grantley Dick Read method of natural birth to medical students from the 1940s, and was an adviser to the Childbirth Education Association well ahead of most others in the medical profession. Her interest in nutrition included a close study of the therapeutic benefits of vitamins E and C. She never shirked controversy and answered her critics with well-reasoned and easily understood articles in the daily press. Her suggestion that vitamin E might prevent cot deaths provoked considerable controversy.

She travelled to investigate overseas nutritional clinics and to visit her widely dispersed and very talented family: three sons, Raphael, Carl and David are doctors; Ruth is a doctor and a sculptor and Diane is an actor. Lady Cilento retired from clinical practice in 1964 but continued to write and advise on nutrition. She became interested in chelation therapy in the treatment of heart disease and adopted it herself. She died in Brisbane aged 93 on 26 July 1987.

Helen Gregory

Phyllis Cilento My Life 1987.