Phoebe Chapple was always going to be someone special. She grew up in a family of high achievers. Apart from her father, Frederic Chapple, who was headmaster at Prince Alfred College Adelaide, five of her seven siblings held university degrees: Alfred a lecturer in engineering at St John’s University Cambridge; Ernest, another Cambridge graduate at Jesus University and president of the Fresher Debating Society before taking up a position in Rangoon, Burma; Harold a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital in London; Marian an arts graduate from the University of Adelaide; and Fred, another doctor. However, Phoebe stood apart even in such accomplished company.
Born in Adelaide on 31 March 1879, Phoebe was the youngest daughter in the family. She was educated at the Advanced School for Girls in Grote Street, Adelaide before entering university at the tender age of 16. She gained her Bachelor of Science in 1898, no mean feat considering the prevailing attitudes to women at the time. But Phoebe was not finished yet. Inspired by South Australian women’s advocate and Adelaide’s first practicing woman doctor, Dr Violet Plummer, Phoebe decided to study medicine. For academic excellence in her second year she was awarded the university’s Elder Prize. She graduated as a doctor in 1904.
Following the completion of her studies, Phoebe worked as a house surgeon at the Adelaide Hospital and in 1906 was briefly appointed the resident medical officer for the Sydney Medical Mission. While in Sydney she treated the poor in their homes, charging only a minimal amount to cover medicines, if anything at all. She kept an exhaustive schedule, travelling ‘by tram, bus, and on foot, and in urgent cases sometimes by cab.’
Returning to Adelaide, she practiced from Prince Alfred College where her father was headmaster. She quickly became actively involved in women’s issues, gaining a seat on the committee of the South Australian [Women’s] Refuge in November 1912. From 1914 to 1929, apart from her war service years, she was Honorary Medical Superintendent of McBride’s Maternity Hospital.
During the First World War she became frustrated with the Australian army’s refusal to appoint women doctors. Not content to surrender so readily, she travelled to England in February 1917 to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. She was appointed as surgeon to Cambridge Hospital in Aldershot. Later, she was attached to Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) and moved to France. Chapple was accorded the honorary rank of captain and was one of the first two women doctors sent to the front, which she ‘regarded as an honor [sic] for Australia.’