site logo

Dr Lilian Cooper and Ms Josephine Bedford (pictured below at the rear of The Mansions c. 1900) met at university in London. They travelled to Brisbane together and lived together for the rest of their lives. There is no doubt they loved each other. In the hindsight afforded by 100 years of coming out, it can be assumed that they were a lesbian couple.

Cooper and her partner Bedford

photo courtesy QWHA

Dr Lilian Cooper was Queensland's first female doctor, described as a champion of women and children and "a mannish and abrupt woman who was idolised by her patients." (Courier-Mail 5.6.1991)

“One (male colleague) jokingly said to her (Dr Cooper), 'What you want is a wedding ring.' (where have we heard that, albeit modernised and more vulgarly expressed, since?)    'I'd wear it on my big toe,' she flashed back contemptuously. Nothing could have insulted her more deeply than the suggestion that she should prefer marriage to medicine. Actually, she would have preferred death on the rack to marriage. The antagonism she had always felt for men had hardened in recent years into utter contempt."   From a biographical essay on Lilian Cooper by Lorraine Cazalar, 1970.

Cooper opened her own practice in George Street in 1891 when she was 30 years old. Shunned by the city's all-male medical fraternity, she was at first denied the services of an anaesthetist for her operations. She was finally admitted to the Queensland Medical Society in 1893, and was the first woman surgeon appointed to the Mater Public Hospital.

Cooper's practice plaque

Dr Cooper's plaque from her George Street practice
photo: Shev Armstrong

Lilian and Josephine were both members of the Pioneer Club, a women only club loosely linked to the WFL.

Dr Cooper became popular with her patients and did her rounds on her sulky during the day, and by bicycle at night. With this popularity came wealth, and she and Josephine were known as among Brisbane's foremost philanthropists. Josephine worked toward family welfare and improvement of the lot of impoverished children.

In 1911, Lilian and Josephine went to America where Lilian spent time at the Mayo Clinic, then they travelled to England where Lilian obtained her MD. They returned to Brisbane, and when World War One broke out they joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals and spent a year in the war-torn Balkans. According to the Courier-Mail: “Dr Cooper became a familiar, heroic figure working in appalling conditions in knee breeches and rubber boots. The couple were honoured by the King of Serbia.”

After Cooper's death in 1947, her partner Josephine first offered their Kangaroo Point clifftop home to the Anglican church. The men of the church in their wisdom refused the house, for unknown reasons. So Bedford approached the Catholic Sisters of Charity who readily agreed to convert the house into a hospice for the aged and dying. That hospice later evolved into the Mount Olivet Hospital.


their donated stained glass window

photo: Shev Armstrong

Josephine also commemorated her lifelong love of Lilian with a double stained-glass window which she donated to the Warriors' Chapel of St Mary's (Anglican and next door to the hospital) which can still be viewed on the southern side of the little church. It features a Roman centurion asking Jesus for the salvation of the centurion's slave. The centurion oppressor is risking his life to save his slave. Why did Cooper and Bedford choose this particular theme (they probably discussed donating the window before Cooper died, and as educated women they would have had access to theology and Roman history).

Interestingly, gay and lesbian activists from the United Kingdom in the 1990s produced a play about the centurion and his slave lover. And gay groups refer to the scene depicted as a gay message, where Christ heals the slave and gays are thus vindicated.
see for more info

It seems likely that Cooper and Bedford knew 100 years ago that this passage in the Bible had some relevance for their own relationship and lifestyle. Donating a window to a church provides a fine example of how women encode messages when under male domination. These women succeeded in passing on a one hundred year legacy to future lesbians in particular, and women in general. Josephine knew we'd find them, eventually. They have provided us with an enduring message of both their love and proof that, as the saying goes, lesbians are everywhere", even in 1900s Brisbane. It's a sad fact that still, today, one hundred years later, most mainstream historians and journalists, and many clerics, are unwilling to consider or divulge information about this Brisbane couple's life together. We could be celebrating it.

Josephine's tombstone lies on top of Lilian's in the Toowong cemetery (or is it the other way around? Take a look for yourself.)

Further reading: Moore, C., Sunshine and Rainbows: the development of gay and lesbian culture in Queensland, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001.