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Herstory – Dr Kate Duncan AM

Dr Kate Duncan AM shares her story

Meet Dr Kate Duncan AM

Dr Kate Duncan AM features in our Herstory instalment. Kate is a mentor to many and recently tried to retire, but instead has filled her time relieving over burdened colleagues in Victoria, Canberra and NSW, whilst also agreeing to lead the governance overhaul of our nearly 100 year old organisation, AFMW. In 2022, Kate was appointed as a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia for services to the medical profession and women’s health.

Dr Kate Duncan’s Story

Name: Dr Catherine ‘Kate’ Duncan AM

Country Born: England, Manchester; training Australia

University Training: Monash University

Year of graduation: 1977

State membership: Victoria

Roles in AFMW: Past President, Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS); Past President, Australian Federation of Medical Women (AFMW), Governance Chair, AFMW

Profession / Specialty: Obstetrics and Gynaecology


My Career

I chose medicine for the intellectual challenge. Having studied pure sciences in my Year 12, I found that none of the careers that this led to appealed to me, so I changed my preference last minute to study medicine and told my parents after making the switch.

My mother was upset when she found out and argued, “Why did you pick the longest course? We now have to support you for longer!” Fortunately, my father did support my decision and by 4th Year medicine I was self-supporting, working part-time at the Blood Bank.

My early years had been impacted when my mother developed severe viral encephalitis at age 42. For a while, she lost her memory completely and couldn’t remember she had three children. I was 10 at the time and it affected me profoundly in not having a maternal role model.

Upon reflection, Mum had a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree and was well into her Masters when she stopped to marry my father and move from New Zealand to the UK, for him to do his PhD. She was an academic who no doubt, felt a sense of loss. I was born in Manchester, England and we migrated to Australia when I was eight.

I studied at Monash University, graduated in 1977 and completed my internship and paediatric year at Queen Victoria Hospital, then started the training program in 1980 towards becoming an obstetrician gynaecologist.

I built a career in both obstetrics and gynaecology, but office gynaecology didn’t really appeal to me because from the day I started practice I was immediately booked two months ahead. That was the way with female gynaecologists then. It meant that all the urgent, interesting cases ended up with the male doctors who weren’t as booked up, and I love being where I feel I can really make a difference, so the decision to concentrate on obstetrics was inevitable for me. It gave me the opportunity to deal with younger patients, emergencies, and straightforward obstetrics.

My career has been very fulfilling and looking back I would do the same again. Over the years, I’ve received so much positive feedback from my patients and I’ve enjoyed the feeling that I made a difference. I still feel I can make that difference by continuing to do locums in places of need, locally and interstate in my retirement. This continues to give me the opportunity to teach students and registrars and to relieve overworked colleagues.

I joined Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS) in the 1980s and became VMWS President 1990 – 1991 which was when I had my two babies. At that stage, the AFMW Presidency and AFMW Executive rotated between the state medical women’s societies each triennium. We had yearly face-to-face council meetings. Everything else was done by correspondence. Victoria took over the executive from 1995 to 1998 which is when I introduced teleconferencing.

For nearly fifteen years I was engaged with the politics in teaching hospitals and I made a conscious decision to steer away from academia, having lived that through my parents who were both university academics. I liked being more hands on. I joined the AMA Victorian Council in 1990 as VMWS representative and later was co-opted to the Board during the medical indemnity crisis in 2003.

As for my family life, my husband Allan and I met at my 21st birthday party and we built a relationship over time. The first time we were to go on a date, I was a medical student busy with my first patient admission and I stood him up for four hours. He waited, which was a good sign! He has been an incredibly patient man all our life.

We had two children in quick succession, which was an ironic way to discover that lactation is not an effective contraceptive method! I had my first baby in 1990 during my first year as President of Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS), I became the VMWS Representative on the Victorian branch of AMA and thus the first AMA council member to give birth while in office. I also took a breast-fed baby to Council meetings. I balanced home, kids, career by having a hands-on partner, hiring nannies and outsourcing the domestic load.


Mentor Information

The Queen Victoria Hospital, nicknamed ‘Queen Vic’, was the major influence on my career.

Queen Victoria was like a refuge and it was amazing to find powerful role models who influenced me. Dame Joyce Daws was my first role model. She was a force of nature and alerted me to the political scene given that she was President of Australian Medical Association (AMA) in Victoria at the time. She encouraged me to take an interest in things outside of medicine and the way things worked. Dr June Howqua was never one of my bosses but was an influencer whom I admired.

I could give you a list of twenty people who influenced me and this group included Professor Arthur Clarke (Professor of Paediatrics), and the entire obstetrics and gynaecology division – there were many superb role models. When you are one of a medical class which was only 19% women and you see the hospital senior staff made up of women – this influences you. Queen Victoria Hospital had female heads of department all round which was inspiring. If you see a female role model in a prominent position you are more likely to think, ‘if they can do it, I can do it too.’ Dr Lena McEwan, a plastic surgeon, taught my tutorials in 4th year and she was a knowledgeable, generous person who gave her time to teach medical students and opened up to any questions you asked.

When I was senior registrar, Dr Ruth Walker, who was head of the Walker – Schubert gynaecology unit, took me out to lunch and said, ‘Kate, I want to retire, would you like my practice?’ Dr Ruth Walker handed me her whole practice. She accepted no payment for this other than some nominal amount for her surgical instruments and the furniture, and her words to me were, ‘pass it on when you retire.’ That was the spirit of the Queen Victoria Hospital.


Three Things  I Learnt

1. When you are burning out stand aside and give yourself a break. I gave myself a three-month sabbatical after fifteen years because I was dealing with ten- and eleven-year-old children at home, along with my aging parents, a full-time obstetric practice and an AMA career. I got to the point where I almost said “I am going to retire” so I took Allan and the kids overseas for three months and came back refreshed.

2. Another important lesson I’ve learned is that when you need psychiatric, help ask for it. I have been dealing with endogenous depression for twenty years. Doctors are trained to be the therapist rather than the recipient of therapy and we find it unnatural to accept that we need to be cared for. That’s especially the case for people of my generation who have been taught that this is a ‘weakness’. Admitting to mental illness made one a target for bullying, so it was internalised and often fed into imposter syndrome. It was a ‘dog eat dog’ existence and I think this explains why a lot of people my age have hard edges and may come across to the younger people as cynical, or uncaring and ambitious. But it was all learned through a need to survive and maintain a strong front.

3. Remember HALT. The term HALT stands for – Hungry, Angry, Late and Tired. That was me for thirty years but ironically, you cannot run a solo obstetric practice without this. Or at least, I couldn’t. A small but significant number of patients came to me because they were survivors of traumas such as incest, rape or domestic violence, who didn’t want a male near their genital region. I had difficulty finding other women obstetricians as locum support so, for some years I worked 10 sessions a week in the Rooms and was on call 24/7. In later years I focused my practice on Obstetrics which reduced my consulting sessions, and I was able to arrange a weekend cover group which made a big difference.


My Pearls of Wisdom for Others

  • Take every opportunity to teach and never assume that the student or resident understands what understandswhat whatwhat you what you
  • Every senior person should be a teacher, mentor and role model.
  • Generosity of spirit comes to mind – I have benefited from the generosity of good teachers, and mentors and have tried to pass it on.
  • When you are burning out, stand aside and give yourself a break.



Thank you Dr Kate Duncan for contributing to the AFMW Herstory compilation. Obstetrics can be very unpredictable but despite your committment to your patients, you always communicated with the team at VMWS and AFMW during our meetings and generously shouted many of us all meals at the Lyceum Club in Melbourne, on those nights where you couldn’t join us.


Magdalena Simonis
President, Australian Federation of Medical Women


An online E book of AFMW members and their mentors

About ‘Herstory’

The online AFMW Herstory E-Book, gives AFMW members the opportunity to contribute to the AFMW oral tapestry, by forming a compilation of  ‘our mentoring stories’, in which we  honour those who have changed our lives. Making this an online AFMW story book, encourages us each to consider contributing to building this over the years, into a collection of medical women’s key take home messages’, as we share the wisdom we each have gained from our own lived experiences.  The ‘golden nugget of wisdom’ that we would share with someone who asked us about what we have learned.

Add Your Story

If you would like to contribute your story, please download the Herstory template (Word doc), add your details and return the completed form to [email protected]. Please also submit a photo of yourself with this. It can be a ‘selfie’ taken with a good camera that you would be happy to have others see.


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