Born the eldest of four children of Sir Thomas Ranken Lyle, a mathematical physicist, and his wife, Frances Isobel Clare Millear, she attended Toorak College between 1906 and 1912, and she excelled both academically and at sport. In 1913 she entered the University of Melbourne as a medical student. She was captain of the women's tennis and hockey teams, obtaining University Sporting Blue in both sports.
Mary graduated with her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MB, BS) in 1921, achieving first-class honours in all subjects, with a first in medicine and fourth in surgery. She won the Keith Levi Memorial Scholarship in medicine and the Sameson prize in clinical medicine (Hilton). She became a resident surgeon at Royal Melbourne Hospital under Sir Alan Newton.
In 1918 she had met Edmund Herring, then a young Australian captain in the British Army on leave from the Macedonian front of the Great War, and they were married on 6 April 1922 at Toorak Presbyterian Church. They had three daughters, Mary Cecile ("Molly"; b. 1924), Judith Ann ("Judy"; b. 1926), and Margaret Lyle (b. 1933).
Mary Herring became a medical officer for the Pre-Natal Clinic at the Prahran Health Centre In 1926. This clinic was the first of its kind in Melbourne, and became a model for similar clinic established by Mary in South Melbourne in 1940. At the time she started work at the Prahran clinic, she was a mother herself and pregnant with Judy, a circumstance of great interest to the women who sought advice or treatment at the clinic. She continued working at the Prahran Health Centre until 1945.
Herring joined the Melbourne District Nursing Society in 1931, and was its vice president from 1943 to 1953. Mary was one of three doctors who banded together to establish Women's Welfare Clinic to offer advice on birth control, at a time when many doctors and a large segment of the community were opposed to it. This clinic functioned for one day a week until 1940 when it was discontinued, as the advice it offered could by then be obtained elsewhere.
- Chair, Welfare Branch of the AIF Women's Association in 1940 and president from 1943 until 1946. Between 1946 and 1950 she was a foundation member and president of the Victorian Council Social Service.
- Chair, Vera Scantlebury Brown Trust for 23 years from 1946 to 1979. Herring and Vera Scantlebury Brown had both attended Toorak College and were medical students at the University of Melbourne together.
- Honorary Member, Soroptimist Club of Victoria
- President, Australian Council of the Save the Children Fund from 1962 to 1967
- Deputy president of the Victoria League from 1945 to 1972
- Vice-chairman, British Commonwealth Youth Sunday Council.
- Member, Alexandra and Lyceum clubs, Royal Melbourne Golf, Barwon Heads Golf and the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria.
Mary Herring was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire on 11 June 1960 "for services to nursing in Victoria".
Before her death on 26 October 1981, aged 86, following a long illness, Dame Mary Herring planned her funeral service, requesting that no announcements be made until after she was buried. A small private service was held on 28 October 1981.
The Mary Herring Hall at Toorak College is named in her honour.
- Hilton, Della, Dr. Mary : the story of Dame Mary Herring (ISBN 0731671368)