The Noblest Profession: Nursing in Queensland

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This article, by Margaret Cook, was originally published on the Queensland State Archives website, March 2013.

Nursing was derived from religious orders and the military. Early nursing uniforms reflected this beginning with veils like nun’s coifs and the militaristic use of epaulettes and stripes on uniforms to demark hierarchy. Uniforms were often pale blue with white aprons and mob caps typical of English servant attire. White symbolised hygiene, blue symbolised purity.

Queensland State Archives Digital Image 11994: Maternal and Child Welfare – Ipswich, March 1955


In Britain Elizabeth Fry established an Institution of Nursing Sisters in 1840 and three-month hospital training, but it was under Florence Nightingale that a hospital training school was introduced after the Crimean War (1853-1856). In Queensland the Florence Nightingale system of training nurses was established and the Brisbane General Hospital became the first training centre in 1886. Regional hospitals followed suit, while religious and private hospitals also provided training. By the end of the 19th century there were a large number of trained nurses throughout Australia, prompting the establishment of the Australasian Trained Nurses Association in 1899, with membership offered only to those with hospital accreditation. The Queensland branch was formed in 1904 and began lobbying for registration of nurses. Success came in 1912 when Queensland established a Nurses Registration Board for general, midwifery and mental nurses — the first of its kind in Australia.

Under the Health Act 1911 general, midwifery and mental health nurses in Queensland were registered and were to be given preferential employment in hospitals covered by the Hospitals Acts. A state syllabus, examinations and a common period of training of three years in a hospital was introduced. Within 12 months 1401 nurses were registered in Queensland.

In 1921 nurses formed the union Queensland Nurses Association under the Industrial Arbitration Act 1916 to advocate for improved conditions and wages. Nurses worked long hours and were poorly paid, with a senior nurse earning £103 per annum and a teacher £195 and clerks £182.[1] Senior nurses’ salaries were increased to £120-£160 in 1921. Hours worked were 112 per fortnight in 1921, reduced to 88 in 1925 and 80 in 1930.[2]

Under the Hospitals Act 1923 hospitals were categorised into three-, four- and five-year training hospitals, largely dependent on their size. Sectional exams at the end of each year were introduced, rather than a final exam in the third year. The syllabus was changed to cater for the additional years.

Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 2887: Brisbane General Hospital and Women’s Hospital, Nurse’s lecture room, 1946


World War II exposed a shortage of nurses both on the war front and home front. Despite a recruitment campaign and a temporary shortening of training from four to three years, the problem persisted and Red Cross and Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses had to fill the gaps in hospitals. In 1943 the Nurses Award was amended, but despite that first-year nurses earned £65 (an increase from £33) while a 16-year-old shop assistant earned £97. A first-year Sister earned £175.[3]

Nursing education changed in the 1960s when the Queensland Branch of the College of Nursing introduced post-registration courses, most of which had been available only in Melbourne. The Australasian Trained Nurses Association lobbied to improve the educational standards of nurses, making completion of Junior (Year 10) a required minimum-entry level. A major curriculum change in 1970 increased the number of lecture hours to 840, with six weeks preliminary training. Depending on hospital size, training would be three or four years long. Lectures were now held in hospital time. Post-graduate training also expanded and the positions of nurses’ aides and enrolled nurses were introduced.

The move to separate nurse education from hospitals gained momentum in the 1970 when a college course started in Melbourne. Queensland was the last state to introduce tertiary nurse training when in 1978 the Queensland Institute of Technology offered post-registration courses, followed by the first undergraduate course in 1982. Many hospitals were reluctant to change. By 1993 all nurses in Queensland were trained at university.

Until the 1950s nursing had changed little. Nurses were responsible for patient care, as well a cleaning patients and wards, preparing meals, making bandages, sterilising and counting equipment, sharpening needles, sorting linen and making beds. Patients were treated in large, open Nightingale wards. Organised as a dormitory with the sickest patients closest to the Sister’s desk, the only privacy was afforded by heavy screens. The average patient stay was 10 days but many stayed weeks. The only monitoring of patients was done by nurses on their regular rounds. Hospitals did not have electric beds and hoists — patients were lifted by nurses, at the expense of their backs.

Queensland State Archvies Digital Image ID 23356: Nurse working in the public ward, Women’s Hospital, Brisbane, c 1950s – 1960s

Nurses’ shifts were long and every minute was accounted for on-duty, and supervised and monitored when off-duty. Nurses lived on-site in nurses’ homes under the watchful eye of the Home Sister. Life was regimented with a 10 pm curfew rigidly and punitively enforced. Social lives were restricted and males could not visit. Most socialising was with fellow nurses and the bonds made between nurses created friends for life. All nurses were single as up until 1969 married women had to resign.

The 1970s brought significant changes. Hospital orderlies, enrolled nurses and nurses’ aides helped with patient care. Meals were made in kitchens and brought to the wards. Sterilising departments were introduced, only to be followed by the era of disposable bandages and equipment in the 1990s.

Nursing has evolved from the medical model where doctors dictated care and nurses subserviently followed. Since the 1990s it has been a more collegiate approach with doctors, nurses and allied health professionals such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists working together.

The nursing structure is still hierarchical, but less authoritarian. There are now more levels with endorsed enrolled nurses, enrolled nurses and assistant nurses junior to registered nurses and those above. However, nurses now take a more active role in patients’ care, performing the tasks once assigned to junior doctors or medical registrars.

Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 23355: Staff at the Mt Olivet Hospital, Kangaroo Point, 1 August 1991

Nursing is now also more specialised, with nurses working in intensive care, mental health and palliative care wards, postnatal and prenatal clinics and day surgery units, among others. The average hospital stay is less than 24 hours; patients recuperate at home. As a consequence, those in hospital wards require more intense nursing.

Margaret Cook

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12 Responses

  1. Barbara Black

    What wonderful memories, some good some not so good. I started my training at The Princess Alexandra Hospital in the late 1970’s. I would like to follow the history of nursing in Australia, as part of my Doctoral studies.

  2. Amanda Blohm

    Hi Barbara Black

    If you are interesetd in the history of nursing in Australia I recommend you have a look at The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia website.

    “This Encyclopedia had its origins in an Australian Research Council Linkage grant under the leadership of Professor Patricia Grimshaw at the University of Melbourne. The project, which ran from 2011 to 2013, brought together researchers from the Australian Catholic University, the Australian National University, Griffith University and the University of Melbourne and Linkage partners from the Australian Nursing Federation, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Archives of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Foundation for Australian Women and the National Library of Australia. While not a formal Linkage partner the History Teachers Association made a valuable contribution to the project.”

    I’ve just read – Theme Nursing – Written by Madonna Grehan, The University of Melbourne – Defining Leadership in Nursing

    I thought it was interesting, well researched, and made connections of which I was previously unaware. I recommend it.

  3. I am interested in clarifying the training of nurses in the early 20th Century in Qld. My great grandmother and her sister – both from Bundaberg – were trained/’employed’ by the Hospital for Sick Children before 1914 as nurses. If a report in 1900 refers to a nurse being ‘appointed on the staff as a nurse’, does this mean that they were taken on as a first year/trainee nurse – or would they have already qualified as a nurse somewhere else?
    Thank you for your assistance.

  4. Custom Medical Uniforms helps to provide an ethical and professional look to the hospitals. All of them have their own advantages and utilities during the work routine, which is why they are recommended must wear to the relevant officials.

  5. Noel Robinson

    I’ve just found this website by chance and hope it is still active.
    I have been trying to piece together the nursing duties and responsibilities my grandfather Herbert Clay might have had in the years he was employed as a ‘Mental Nurse’ at Willowburn.
    I’ve obtained copies of the relevant regulations and legislation but they are broad requirements only and don’t really give me an idea of his day-to-day role.
    Here’s a brief history of his employment (from the Qld Gov Gazette):
    1914-1917: Training on the job.
    1917: Registered Nurse under Sec’n 154D2 of the Health Act Amendment Act of 1911.
    1947: Promoted to Head Male Nurse (one of three)
    1953: Retired.
    Herbert worked at Willowburn for almost 40 years.
    I was hoping there might at least be some administrative record of his presence, a record of meetings he might have attended as a ‘Head Nurse’, duty rosters etc, but the Hospital (now ‘Baillie Henderson’) was unable to provide any archive records that might shed some light on his duties or responsibilities.
    I would be very grateful for any advice you might offer about any other sources that I might try.

  6. Kim Tee

    Hi there,
    I’m looking for any information regarding my Godmother who came to Australia to work as a nurse.
    Her name then was Doreen Bletsoe and she was born 20/05/1933.
    She sailed into Freemantle WA on the Fairsea ship on 26th August 1956.
    Doreen said she worked at The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne for a year, then at Graffton Bush Hospital for 2 years and lastly at Brisbane General Hospital for 2 years returning to Southampton UK some time in 1960-1961. She says the Brisbane General Hospital was her favourite place to work out of the 3 as it was a truly great experience.
    If you have any information I’d be very grateful as she’s terminally ill and I’m putting together a memories book for her to cheer her up.

    Could you also please explain to me, are the Royal Brisbane and the Brisbane General Hospitals one and the same?

  7. Geoff Bermingham

    Hi, I’m trying to track down any records of my mother who did her nursing training at Royal Brisbane Hospital during or after WW2. Is there a list of nursing graduates for that time, & is it possible to get a copy of her graduation certificate? Her name was Vera Isabel Muller, born 24-3-1914. Can you assist? Thankyou.

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