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McCarthy, Dame Emma Maud (1859–1949)

by Perditta M. McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Dame Emma Maud McCarthy (1859-1949), nursing sister and army matron-in-chief, was born on 22 September 1859 at Paddington, Sydney, eldest child of William Frederick McCarthy, solicitor, and his Sydney-born wife Emma Mary, née à Beckett, niece of Sir William and Thomas Turner à Beckett. Maud was educated at a school run by Lady Murray, wife of Sir Terence Murray, known as Springfield College, Sydney, and passed with honours the University of Sydney's senior examination. After her father's death in 1881 she helped her mother to rear her brothers and sisters.

By 1891 she was in England and on 10 October, giving her previous occupation as 'companion' and her age as 28, she entered London Hospital, Whitechapel, to begin general nursing training as a probationer. Hospital records state that 'she had an exceptionally nice disposition' and was 'most ladylike and interested in her work' though 'she found it hard to control others, or to take firm action when necessary'. She was promoted sister in January 1894.

Maud McCarthy was sister-in-charge of Sophia women's ward at the outbreak of the South African War and was one of the six sisters selected from London Hospital by Princess Alexandra to go to South Africa as her own 'military' nursing sisters. Resigning from the hospital on 25 December 1899, McCarthy served with distinction throughout 1899-1902 with the Army Nursing Service Reserve, receiving the Queen's and the King's Medal and the Royal Red Cross. Returning to England in July 1902, she was awarded a special decoration by Queen Alexandra. She then became involved in the formation of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, was promoted matron within the service in February 1903 and during the next seven years was successively matron of Aldershot, Netley and Millbank military hospitals. In 1910 she was appointed principal matron at the War Office, a position she held until the outbreak of World War I.

Matron McCarthy sailed in the first ship to leave England with members of the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France on 12 August 1914. In 1915 she was installed at Abbeville as matron-in-chief of the B.E.F. in France and Flanders, taking charge of the whole area from the Channel to the Mediterranean, wherever British and allied nurses worked; she was directly responsible to General Headquarters. In August 1914 the numbers in her charge were 516; by the time of the Armistice they were over 6000. She was responsible for the nursing of hundreds of thousands of casualties in the years 1914-18. An indefatigable leader and administrator, she visited field units, casualty clearing stations, hospital trains, hospital ships and stationary and general hospitals. The constant shortage of trained nurses, continual postings of staff, and personnel requirements of individuals were handled with tact and skill. She was the only head of a department in the B.E.F. who remained in her original post throughout the war, although she was off duty with appendicitis in March-August 1917. She was appointed G.B.E. in 1918, received a Bar to her Royal Red Cross and was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Belgian Medaille de la Reine Elizabeth, and the French Légion d'honneur and Medaille des Epidémies. When she left France on 5 August 1919, representatives from the French government and the medical services saw her off. The meticulous records kept since her arrival in France were taken to England with her.

Describing the matron-in-chief during the war, one general said: 'She's perfectly splendid, she's wonderful … she's a soldier!… If she was made Quartermaster-General, she'd work it, she'd run the whole Army, and she'd never get flustered, never make a mistake. The woman's a genius'. A contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1914 referred to her as a 'slight, delicately-organised woman' with 'an absolutely wonderful gift for concentrated work, and a power of organisation that has made her invaluable in army hospital work'.

She was matron-in-chief, Territorial Army Nursing Service, from 1920 until her retirement in 1925. Dame Maud McCarthy died at her home at Chelsea, London, on 1 April 1949. A pastel portrait by Austin Spare is in the Imperial War Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Piggott, Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (Lond, 1975)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec 1914
  • personal record of E. M. McCarthy (London Hospital, Whitechapel, London)
  • private information.

Citation details

Perditta M. McCarthy, 'McCarthy, Dame Emma Maud (1859–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccarthy-dame-emma-maud-7306/text12675, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 1 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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