While searching for First World War records to display in our latest exhibition ‘On the Home Front’, we found this striking image of Second Lieutenant Sister Rosa O’Kane. This beautiful portrait of Sister Rosa in her nurse’s uniform had been painstakingly attached to a cardboard backing. On the reverse was an obituary poem clipped from the papers and a simple but moving inscription; “To their Excellencies, Sir Henry and Lady Goold-Adams. In memory of a brave Queensland woman. From her mother.”
The portrait accompanied an eloquent eight page letter written by Mrs Jeanie O’Kane from Charters Towers (QSA Digital Image ID 26118). Mrs O’Kane was appealing to the Governor of Queensland to help her application for a pension following the death of her daughter who died after nursing soldiers and sailors with the Spanish Flu in Freemantle.
Sister Rosa “…made the supreme sacrifice when she volunteered to nurse the pneumonic-influenza patients of the plague stricken transport Boonah.” She died of the very disease the nurses were battling. Mrs O’Kane describes her daughter as “as a fine type of Australian girl, of marked ability and a girl of great possibilities had God spared her life.”
At this time, it was common practice for parents to receive a pension for the loss of an only son while serving his country but there was nothing in place for the loss of an only daughter.
The Governor’s Private Secretary responded with an expression of the sympathy from the Governor and his wife and their grief at hearing such sad news, as well as their apologies for being unable to assist Mrs O’Kane in her application for her late daughter’s pension as it was a federal matter.
Even without the support of the Governor, Mrs O’Kane was eventually successful in gaining a pension for the loss of her daughter, which we were able to determine with the help of the National Archives of Australia. According to records[i] found in their collection, Mrs O’Kane continued to dispute the decision to refuse her the war pension until it was overturned.
Mrs O’Kane’s eldest son, Frank, managed to survive three years of service in the battlefields of France, and returned home to marry and settle down with a family of his own. Both Sister O’Kane and Corporal O’Kane‘s enlistment records can be found on the National Archives of Australia website.
In all, Mrs O’Kane had three children – two sons and her daughter Rosa – before being widowed at an early age. To support them, she took over the family newspaper that had been started by her father-in-law, Thaddeus O’Kane, and successfully managed it for several years. She sold the business to return to teaching and you can see her background as an editor and a teacher in the powerful language used in her writing, particularly when referring to her daughter.
Jeannie Elizabeth O’Kane passed away on 6 July 1936, at the age of 77, leaving behind her two sons and their families. Her obituary stated:
“Mrs O’Kane was in every respect a ‘war mother,’ and no cause was ever so dear to her as that of the digger or the nursing sister. As each year passed she was an outstanding personality among those who organise the annual dinner in honor of soldiers on Anzac Day, and the aim or unanimity in public commemoration of Anzac Day was an objective for which she was an unceasing champion.”
[i] National Archives of Australia Agency ID J34, C38363, Pension case files, single number series with ‘C’ (First World War ex-servicemen) prefix – O’KANE, Jeanie Elizabeth beneficiary of O’KANE, Rosa – Service Number – Staff Nurse [Not viewable online]
When will this exhibition be one please?
Hi Sue – thanks for asking, our ‘On the Homfront’ exhibition ran from June 2016 to June 2017. We’re sorry if you missed it.
Thank you so very much for this very lovely story about Rosa, my great-aunt. 2018 is even more special for us as it is the 100th anniversary of her death in December 2018. She died of Spanish Influenza after nursing troops home from South Africa.
Thank you for your somments Stephen and we’re glad you liked our blog.
My brother Dr Glenn Davies and I (Brian Davies RN) have been researching your great Aunt as we are from Charters Towers and have published on Rosa’s grand father Thaddeus in the past. Glenn has published an article on Rosa which might be of interest.
Stephen. I have been following this story as I believe we are distantly related !! My mother (age 92, surname Donaghy, from Ballymena, N.Ireland) ‘s Aunt Jeannie left Ireland to go to Australia. I thought that I would try to track her down and found this. very interesting and moving.
It is interesting how Rosie O’Kane’s death as been assumed into the Anzac mythology of fighting for King and Country, rather than in the history of the Influenza Pandemic. Many Queensland nurses died as a result of staying at their post during the pandemic in hospitals throughout the state, with to date little or no acknowledge or general remembrance.
See for example my 2017 Doctoral Thesis: Flu, State and Society: The political, social and economic implications of the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic in Queensland”.
She was an army nurse so that seems fitting.