Fay Muriel COPLEY

COPLEY, Fay Muriel

Service Number: SX26944
Enlisted: 22 November 1942, Northfield, SA
Last Rank: Not yet discovered
Last Unit: Not yet discovered
Born: Adelaide, SA, 6 October 1923
Home Town: Medindie, Walkerville, South Australia
Schooling: St Peter's Collegiate Girls' School
Occupation: Not yet discovered
Died: Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 2 March 2015, aged 91 years, cause of death not yet discovered
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
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World War 2 Service

22 Nov 1942: Involvement SN SX26944
22 Nov 1942: Enlisted Northfield, SA
22 Feb 1946: Discharged

Help us honour Fay Muriel Copley's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Janet Scarfe

Fay Muriel Copley



(married name Fay Muriel Copley Griffin)



Fay Muriel Copley was born in Adelaide in 1923. She joined the Australian Army Medical Women's Service in 1942. In 1943, she was sent to Queensland to work on the top secret trials on the effect of a tropical environment on the use of and protection against mustard gas. She spent around two years there, working as a 'chemical girl', one of the laboratory technicians recording and analysing data as well as working in the field. 

She trained as a physiotherapist after the war. She studied and practiced her professsion in South Australia, England, South Africa, Canada and the United States. In 1956, she married an American citizen and moved permanently to the United States.

Fay Muriel Copley Griffin died in Atlanta, Georgia on 2 March 2015, aged 91. 

Before the War

Fay Muriel Copley was the second daughter of Harold James Copley (1888-1947) and his wife Muriel Helen Wilson (nee Shepherd) (1889-1963). She was born in Rose Park on 6 October 1923. Her older sister Helen Joyce had been born in 1922, and a brother James Dawson would be born in 1927.

Harold Copley was a prominent identity in South Australia. Long involved in the pastoral industry he was a manager at Elders Smith and Company and was active in Liberal Country Party circles. He had served in World War 1 at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, and held the rank of colonel in the Australian Military Forces in the 1930s. A member of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division), he was an honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Governor General from 1940 to 1942.

Fay Copley began her schooling at Rose Park Primary School and then attended St Peter’s Girls in North Adelaide (1937-1941). She was involved in the school literary and science clubs, and was a prefect and vice-captain of Selwyn House in 1941, her final year. Talented with her pen, she won several prizes for drawing both a school and in a newspaper’s club for young people, the ‘Sunshiners’. She passed four subjects for the leaving certificate in 1941, three of them science.

War Service

Fay’s school life ended just as Australia was entering a heightened sense of anxiety about the war. Initially far away, the conflict became perilously close when Japan entered the conflict as an enemy, bombing Pearl Harbour, forcing the evacuation of Singapore and Malaya, then bombing Darwin itself (December 1941-February 1942-1943). As Australia’s population mobilised, opportunities for women to serve suddenly expanded. Whereas women’s service had previously been confined to nursing, in 1942-43 there were new services in which to enlist and a wide range of roles women could undertake, from clerical and other traditional positions to non-traditional roles including motor mechanics, signalling and scientific work.  

Fay’s role in the war was to be non-traditional for women and highly secret.

Fay enlisted on 22 November 1942. She presumably began in the Voluntary Aid Detachment then transferred into the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS) which was officially created in December 1942. Her initial posting was 101 Australian General Hospital, a largely South Australian unit stationed at an infectious diseases hospital at Northfield in Adelaide’s northern suburbs which had been taken over by the Department of Defence. Standard training was three weeks, after which she very likely worked in a pathology laboratory at the hospital.

In 1943, Fay Copley was transferred ‘up north’ (Queensland) as a member of the Australian Chemical Warfare Field and Experimental Station stationed at Innisfail. The top secret project involved experiments with the highly feared mustard gas which it was believed Japan would use as a chemical weapon against Australian and American troops.[1] Aged just 20, Copley may have secured her place through her father’s established reputation in Adelaide’s military, political and establishment circles.

The experiments were regarded as a defensive necessity. They involved measuring the effects of mustard gas in a tropical environment. Little was known about how mustard gas operated in hot, humid, densely foliated conditions, very different conditions from those in Europe in World War 1 when gas had been deployed with such devastating effect. The effectiveness of existing British-sourced protective clothing and respirators in the tropics was also an unknown quantity.

A number of women, members of the AAMWS and the  Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) were stationed with the unit. Their roles varied from the traditional (cooks, typists) to the scientific and technical. Copley was one of three ‘chemical girls’, laboratory technicians who analysed and recorded the results of various experiments in the field. Sylvia Stoltz of the AWAS worked in the meteorological section along side the ‘chemical girls’. She described how most days Copley and her colleagues, dressed in protective clothing and respirators, lugged their heavy bubblers and injectors in and out the rainforest to take air samples after planes had dropped gas canisters. The heat and humidity plus the protective equipment made the work exhausting.[2]

Great emphasis was laid on the secrecy of the project. Even the staff involved were in the dark. Stoltz did not immediately realise the team was working with mustard gas, regarding the work as simply a ‘scientific expedition’. Copley may not have made the connection either.

Some working on the project team reacted badly to the original British made protective clothing and switched to US made equipment.

After months at Innisfail, Copley moved with the unit to Proserpine (Queensland) where a much larger operation was underway. The unit was renamed 1st Australian Field Trials Company, Royal Australian Engineers. By early 1944, the number of personnel had increased and the role of the Americans in the Australia-Britain-US arrangement had become more dominant. Troop losses in the South West Pacific War prompted American authorities to call for a more aggressive strategy using gas. In early 1944, several large-scale trials were held on Brook Island off the Queensland coast. A number of experiments using Australian volunteers in gas chambers were conducted to measure the effects of exposure of mustard gas.

Details of the gas chamber trials remained unknown for decades. Presumably Copley continued to undertake scientific recording and analysis in the laboratory, but she was very likely closely connected with the conduct of the gas chamber experiments. Many of the women on staff spent time with the men who were volunteer subjects, sitting outside the gas chambers during the experiments and distracting them with conversation, stories and singing.[3]

Generally it appears morale among the staff, including the women, was high. There was a lot of socialising, picnics and recreation with men from Australia, Britain and the US. There were also professional rewards, as the women involved in data reporting and analysis were trained for their duties, albeit in a crash course. They also worked outside the laboratory, moving equipment and gas canisters, and even distributing the gas with watering cans like their male colleagues. Dressed in heavy clothing and respirators, they found themselves in dangerous situations working with human subjects to investigate the effects of hazardous materials. Interviewed in 2004 after revelations about the trials, Sylvia Stoltz commented ‘I don’t think anything could have been more hazardous than what I was unless I’d have been under fire.’[4]

The unit disbanded and Lance Corporal Fay Copley was discharged on 22 February 1946. She was 23 years old.[5]

After the war

In her book about the mustard gas experiments, Goodwin noted that women working on the trials in Innisfail and Proserpine were disappointed when their unit broke up; they had relished the camaraderie and high self-esteem.[6] Some found it hard to resume a ‘normal’ civilian routine. Copley’s life, for example, suggests that for a decade at least she found it difficult to settle or perhaps more accurately to channel her energy and excitement.

Copley returned to Adelaide after the war. Like many returned personnel who benefited from the Commonwealth government’s retraining scheme for former military personnel, she studied. She chose physiotherapy, the profession of her older sister Helen. It took her around the world.

Copley’s engagement in late 1944 had not led to marriage. She used her new profession and her freedom to travel extensively. An article in the Advertiser in 1951 noted she was on her way home to Adelaide after two years abroad including a stint working in Durban, South Africa where she had become engaged and where she intended to live.[7] That engagement did not did not end in marriage either. After working at the Adelaide Children's Hospital, in 1953-54 she travelled to England, Europe and North America with a group of Australian women. She worked in England in the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and was presented at Buckingham Palace.[8]

After a stay in England, Copley travelled to Canada with several other Australian women including an old school friend. She continued her working holiday, lecturing at the Children’s Hospital in Toronto and visiting New York and Niagara Falls.[9] After a period working in Vancouver, she crossed Canada again to Newfoundland, where she opened a physiotherapy centre.[10]

Copley was committed to developing her physiotherapy practice. She undertook further studies in the United States at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia. The Foundation was a pioneer in the use of hydrotherapy treatment for the after-effects of infantile paralysis, using the natural springs of the area.[11] It attracted staff from around the world but Copley was the first Australian to study there.[12]

While at Warm Springs, Copley met Richard Thomas Griffin (1919-1984), a US citizen. They married in 1956 and settled in Atlantic, Georgia where they had two sons. She became a US citizen in 1960.

Fay Copley Griffin continued to work as a ‘physical therapist’ after her marriage. She retired from working at Georgia Baptist Hospital at the age of 79.[13]

Copley Griffin kept in touch with her friends in Adelaide, not least her school contemporaries. The St Peter’s Girls’ Old Scholars magazine in the 1950s included regular updates on her activities, from her marriage and the birth of her sons to her American dream kitchen.

Fay Copley Griffin died on 2 March 2015 at the age of 91 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her obituarist described her as ‘an adventurous, vibrant and loving woman ... always willing to try new things’.

She is commemorated on the WW2 Honour Board at St Peter's Girls' School, Stonyfell, South Australia. 


[1] For the history of the trials, see Bridget Goodwin, Keen as Mustard: Britain’s Horrific Chemical Warfare Experiments in Australia, UQP, 1998. See also interview with Sylvia Stoltz, a member of the Australian Women’s Army Service who was stationed at the trial sites at the same time as Copley. australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/2036-sylvia-stoltz.
[2] Sylvia Stoltz, interview, australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/2036-sylvia-stoltz.
[3] Goodwin, Keen as Mustard, p170.
[4] Sylvia Stoltz, interview.
[5] Copley’s obituary (2015) stated she ‘traveled the coast of Africa and Europe by ship, providing nursing services to support the war efforts.’ She was discharged from her original unit, the 1st Australian Field Trials unit in February 1946. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/atlanta/obituary.aspx?pid=174559500 (accessed 3 October 2017); http://www.ww2roll.gov.au/Veteran.aspx?ServiceId=A&VeteranId=689894 (accessed 3 October 2017).
[6] Goodwin, Keen as Mustard, pp213-14.
[7] Advertiser, 2 October 1951, p7.
[8] Advertiser, 1 July 1953, p10.
[9] Advertiser, 25 August 1953, p8; Advertiser, 22 February 1954, p12.
[10] St Peter’s Girls’ Old Scholars Association, Magazine, Vol 1 (6), 1955, p14.
[11] For the early work of the Warm Springs Foundation, see http://disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=2168&page=all
[12] St Peter’s Girls’ Old Scholars Association, Magazine, Vol 1 (6), 1955, p14.
[13] See obituary for Fay M Griffin at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/atlanta/obituary.aspx?pid=174559500 (accessed 3 October 2017).