Elsie Dalyell (1881 – 1948), pathologist
Acrylic on linen
112 x 86cm

Dalyell went to the University of Sydney and received a Bachelor of Medicine with First Class Honours in 1909. She was the first woman full-time medical school staff. During the WWI, Dalyell served in the Royal Army Medical Corps across Europe and was appointed an OBE upon the conclusion of the war. In 1923, Dalyell returned to Sydney continuing to work.

Sydney University Museums selected the artist Tianli Zu to paint Elsie Dalyell’s portrait. The University and Dalyell’s family provided old black and white photographs and documents as references. According to her great-great-niece, Elsie was a ‘strong positive woman. She had apricot colour hair’.

Since Dalyell was a medical doctor specialising in pathology, Zu depicted her standing in front of a microscope in her Macquarie Street laboratory. Her graduation gown demonstrates the recognition of the female position in the professional medical field. In an essay that was published in 1915 in Women’s College Magazine, Dalyell recorded one of her experiences in Serbian during the WWI – 3 men doctors and herself drove the Ford ambulance car for a picnic every Sunday. Zu painted a photo-like image to recreate this event in the background. It manifests Dalyell’s optimistic view in contrasting the constant threat of life during wartime.

Elsie’s face is revealed in light and shadow, and it is a typical style in works by Zu. Her right side of the face is exposed and on the shadow side of the face, the eye has a catch light – a sparkle of life. The light and shadow provoke more dramatic emotions not only resonating with Dalyell’s characteristic, but also inviting viewers to contemplate.

‘The portrait of Dalyell is for the future, not for the past’, Zu said. ‘Keeping the representation of Elsie Dalyell very much alive aims to inspire people. While Elsie is surrounded by the darkness, there is a light moving towards her suggesting the expansion of the positive energy. In a global perspective, the legacy of Dalyell enables us to undertake interdisciplinary researches combining arts, mathematics, and science together to explore and take up new challenges.’ 

McLaurin Hall
The University of Sydney
Sydney University Museums collection