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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article may contain the names and faces of persons who are now deceased.

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than to highlight the inspiring work of one of GPTQ’s key cultural educators, Elder Dr Mary Martin. Here is a little more about Aunty Mary’s story.


A career snapshot

An honorary member of the RACGP, Aunty Mary has worked in the health sector for over 50 years. She started out as one of the first Aboriginal nurses in the early 70s, before going on to play an integral role in establishing the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Forum in 1990 (now known as Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council – QAIHC). She was also a foundational member of Central and Southern Qld Training Consortium, now known as GPTQ.

Aunty Mary also had a key hand in the development of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health GP curriculum, and was recognised for her services to medical education with an Honorary Doctorate by QUT in 2019.

GPTQ is proud to have Aunty Mary on board as our primary cultural educator, giving our registrars a unique and rare opportunity to learn from a true pioneer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.


Growing up

Aunty Mary grew up as the middle child in a family of seven.

“My mum was from Springsure up near Carnarvon Gorge. But they removed half of them to Woorabinda – the darker skinned ones – and the other half of the family to Cherbourg. I always grew up thinking Cherbourg was where my mum was from, but it wasn’t until decades later that I realised the real history of what happened,” she explains.

“My dad’s from Minjerribah (now known as North Stradbroke Island), so is a Noonuccal man. I grew up knowing that was his traditional homelands and bloodline to the country. Every year, my family go home for body, mind and spirit healing.”


Starting out as a nurse

Aunty Mary began her medical career as a nurse at the Mater Hospital in the early 1970s, and was the only Aboriginal person in her student group.

“I received a One People Australia elite scholarship to attend Brisbane Girls Grammar School, but I knew that university was out of reach, simply because of money. In sixth form, we had a vocational careers day and part of the exercise was to write away to the particular university or institution and apply. I did that and heard back that I was accepted at the Mater,” she says.

“To be honest, I didn’t have any desire to be a nurse. It was just something I thought I could do!”


A move to an Aboriginal Medical Service

After some time working at the hospital, Aunty Mary’s cousin – who was also a nurse – encouraged her to join her working at the Brisbane Aboriginal and Islander Community Health Service.

“So I did and I loved that too. That was where I learned more about the awareness raising side of what it meant to be an Aboriginal person working in health … and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and politics are inseparable,” she says.

The medical service bore the brunt of acts of racism, including a deliberate fire set in the clinic, but they still managed to keep the doors of the service open.

“For the Brisbane Aboriginal Medical Service to still be here today shows the strength, resilience and support of those doctors and communities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise it as their own. You can go there and get treated fairly and equally, knowing that you’re reflected in those services,” she smiles.


Establishing QAIHC

In 1996, Aunty Mary spent six months in Redfern doing consultancy work at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. She was looking into the feasibility of establishing an Aboriginal health worker forum, now known as QAIHC.

She then went on to become QAIHC’s first employee, working as a recruitment and promotions manager, and then general practice education and training officer. Some 24 years later, she’s still there in her role as workforce coordinator.

“I’m blessed to be still working to improve the life of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our communities,” she says.

She was inducted into the QAIHC’s Hall of Fame in 2008.


Further accolades including a QUT Honorary Doctorate

While Aunty Mary isn’t one to toot her own horn, her remarkable achievements have been justly recognised in recent times. She was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2011 for her nursing service and service to Australia’s First Nations People.

In December 2019, QUT recognised her decade-long role as a member of the Faculty of Health Advisory Committee with an Honorary Doctorate, the university’s highest honorary award. QUT Faculty of Health Executive Dean, Professor Ross Young (pictured), pointed out that during her tenure “the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in the faculty has increased threefold.”

Of the Doctorate, Aunty Mary says it was ‘indeed a surprise’.

“I don’t think you realise what you do until you get something like that.”


Working on the GP curriculum and her relationship with GPTQ

Another large, and significant part of Aunty Mary’s career is her input into the development of the national Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Aboriginal health curriculum. This began her long association with GPTQ and Dr John Buckley (GPTQ’s Director of Training).

“Mary has taught me what real partnership is. If she doesn’t agree with me, she tells me and I listen. And then if I don’t agree, she listens back and we sort it out. That’s what working together is. We’ve got a common goal in mind and we have to learn from each other to achieve it,” says John.

When it comes to training registrars, John says he and Aunty Mary work very well together in the presentation space.

“I do the facilitating and draw Aunty Mary in, and she gives the group what they need. I respect that what Aunty Mary is trying to deliver is particularly challenging, but it’s sometimes more important to challenge people and make them uncomfortable enough to learn, rather than just give them information and be liked,” he says.

During her time with GPTQ, Aunty Mary has trained around 2000 registrars. Over that period, she’s noticed changes, both in herself and those training to become GPs.

“It’s been a big learning experience for me. When I first did the workshops, there were certain things that I believed I had a right to expect. One of them was not using mobile phones. But these days, I’ve realised some people are attached at the hips to their phones. I know as I’ve got children like that too!” she smiles.

“So I realise that, all right, if you’re going to use it, share with the group what you’re looking up because there might be other people in the room who’d be interested as well.”

“With the most recent workshop, the mindset and the attitude of the registrars coming through was quite inspirational. There was a handful of them who were really keen and motivated to share their experiences … It also gives me an opportunity to keep my ear to the ground if there’s a particular registrar who might want to work in Aboriginal health.”


Image from QUT