Sydney Local Health District
RPA Museum & Archives

Nursing History

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The call to national service

The Boer War (1899-1902) was the first war in which Australian nurses served. The Army Nursing Service in Australia was formed in Sydney in 1898 with 24 nurses and a Lady Superintendent serving with troops in South Africa.

By 1902 the Army Nursing Service Reserve was established for trained nurses to serve in field and base hospitals and called the Australian Army Nursing Service - AANS.

During World War I (1914-18) RPA nurses volunteered for the army in great numbers. From Australia 2139 nurses served overseas and 423 in Australia. Twenty-one nurses died on active service and 388 nurses were decorated. A Reserve was maintained until the beginning of WWII in 1939.

When World War II broke out, RPA nurses were part of the first groups in Australia to enlist. From Australia 3500 nurses served with the AANS, 38 nurses were prisoners of war in Rabaul and Malaya, 8 died, 30 returned. There were 45 nurse deaths related to enemy action. Twenty-two nurses were shot by the Japanese on the Island of Banka 16 February 1942 including two RPA trainee nurses. Eleven AANS nurse deaths occurred on the hospital ship 'Centaur' carrying hospital goods, nurses and doctors when torpedoed by Japanese submarine 14 May 1945. In total, 5000 nurses served with the RAAF and RAN.

Nurses were vital on the home front, with ration books provided during WWII. RPA nurses were given coupons when going away from the hospital for days off, and their social lives became further restricted.

At the end of WWII prominent grazier GBS Falkiner generously donated funds for a squash court to commemorate the nurses and doctors who gave their lives in this war.

After WWII there were great changes in health care in hospitals. One nurse commented, "Nurses who came back from military service were much more independent and less prepared to accept the old order, and if they disagreed with a doctor they said so."

By 1950 a Regular Army Nursing Service was established known as the RAANS. A year later the Service became the RAAN Corps.

By Dr Vanessa Witton and Dr Kathryn Hillier, RPA Museum and Archives
Sources: 'The First Fifty Years' by Dorothy Mary Armstrong (1965); 'The Second Fifty Years' by Helen Croll Wilson (2000); The Life and Times of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Australia by Muriel Knox Doherty (1996); Australasian Trained Nurses' Journal; The Sydney Morning Herald; RPA Archives "Memories" collection.

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Page Last Updated: 16 August, 2021