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Walsh, Agnes Marion McLean (1884–1967)

by Philippa Martyr

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Agnes Marion McLean Walsh (1884-1967), hospital matron, was born on 10 June 1884 at Mount McKinlay, near Dungog, New South Wales, youngest of fifteen children of Richard McQueen Gibson, a labourer from Scotland, and his native-born wife Kate, née Cameron. Educated at Dungog and in Sydney, Agnes became a saleswoman. On 25 October 1910 at the Sacred Heart Church, Murwillumbah, she married with Catholic rites 46-year-old Edmond John Walsh, a railway employee. Widowed four years later, she trained in obstetric nursing at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, Sydney. She passed her final examination in June 1916 and then worked in the city slums as a district midwife.

In 1917 Walsh travelled to Western Australia on holiday and, hoping to serve in World War I, stayed to enrol as a probationer at (Royal) Perth Hospital. Registered as a general nurse on 8 June 1920, she joined the staff of King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, Subiaco. She was appointed matron in 1922, shortly before qualifying at the Tresillian Mothercraft Training Centre, Sydney. As the administrator of K.E.M.H. she answered directly to the commissioner of public health. She was adept at assessing the strengths of her staff and delegating responsibilities. The hospital ran within its operating budget, and acquired new wards, nurses' quarters and ante-natal facilities. In 1946 she oversaw one of the first full Rh-factor blood transfusions carried out in Australia.

Walsh had firm views on single motherhood. She considered that the paramount issues were the pregnant woman's well-being and her right to choose to keep or adopt out her baby. Encountering many agitated and scandalized parents, she was to say later that the young mothers' relations usually were 'too full of self-pity because of the coming social stigma, and too pre-occupied with their own broken hearts, to spare a sympathetic thought for the central figure in the drama'. She encouraged her staff to serve as witnesses at marriages performed in the hospital.

A council-member of the West Australian branch of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association from the late 1920s, Walsh served (1936-59) as State president of the Florence Nightingale Committee. In 1937 she was a delegate to the International Council of Nurses congress in London, and in 1943 was seconded to a medical survey committee which was associated with the Commonwealth parliamentary joint committee on social security. The only woman member (from 1946) of the National Health and Medical Research Council, she travelled to Britain in 1948 to study the latest developments in midwifery. She was a founder and second president (1950) of the College of Nursing, Australia.

Awarded King George VI's coronation medal in 1937, Walsh was appointed O.B.E. in 1949. After retiring in 1954 she shared a house at Subiaco with Mary Carson, her long-time deputy-matron and friend. She served (1954-67) on the board of management of the hospital and, with Ruth Allen's help, published her autobiography, Life in her Hands (Melbourne, 1955). Musically gifted, she had a fine contralto voice; she also enjoyed horse-racing. She died on 12 August 1967 at Shenton Park and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. The nurses' home at K.E.M.H. was named after her in 1953.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Hobbs, But Westward Look (Perth, 1980)
  • B. C. Cohen and R. L. Hutchinson, A History of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women: The First Fifty Years, 1916 to 1966 (typescript, 1966, State Library of Western Australia)
  • V. Hobbs, interview with Dorothy Wiley and Miss Taylor (transcript, 1971, State Library of Western Australia)
  • V. Hobbs, taped interview with Ruth Bottle (1975, State Library of Western Australia)
  • King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women records (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Philippa Martyr, 'Walsh, Agnes Marion McLean (1884–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walsh-agnes-marion-mclean-11949/text21417, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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