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White, Edith Alexandra (1901–1988)

by Ruth Rae

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Edith Alexandra McQuade White (1901-1988), army matron, was born on 28 January 1901 at South Grafton, New South Wales, second of seven children of Joseph Alexander Alfred White, book-keeper, and his wife Catherine Jane, née Roberts, both born in New South Wales. Joseph White served in the South African War and his family joined him there after the peace. Edith was educated mainly at the Convent of Mercy school, Grahamstown, Cape Colony (Province). The family returned to Australia in 1919 and settled in Queensland.

Completing her general nursing training (1924-28) at Brisbane General Hospital, White obtained a midwifery certificate at Lady Bowen Hospital and a child welfare certificate. She was matron of Delta Private Hospital, Ayr, before moving in 1937 to the Northern Territory, where she gained valuable experience in remote-area nursing in Darwin, Tennant Creek and Katherine. When World War II broke out in 1939, she volunteered for the Australian Army Nursing Service but, because the Northern Territory Medical Service could not spare her, was not mobilised until 15 April 1941. She was appointed matron of the 1200-bed 119th Australian General Hospital and joined it in Darwin in June.

On 19 February 1942 the Japanese mounted two heavy aerial bombardments of Darwin. Despite the destruction of important hospital and civil infrastructure, White organised her nurses as they cared for hundreds of cases of burns from ships ablaze in the harbour. She wrote in her Reminiscences of an Australian Army Nurse (1952, 1992) that: ‘Every ward had wounded in every available bed, and also on the verandahs. The Sisters worked without a break for thirty-six hours’. Aircraft machine-gunned the hospital and one patient, placed under a bed for protection, was killed. White’s responsibilities were compounded when the army decided to move the hospital some seventy miles (112 km) south to Adelaide River. Brigadier Alec Dawkins later recorded her ‘vital role’ early in the war in the Northern Territory where ‘the conditions of living and nursing were of the crudest and it was largely due to her inspiring example, cheerfulness and resource’, that the hospital gave excellent service, despite the difficult climate and enemy air raids.

White transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in October. On 23 March 1943 she was given the rank of lieutenant colonel and appointed principal matron, Northern Territory Force, responsible for nursing services in all army hospitals in the Territory. Sent to Sydney, in October she was made principal matron, New South Wales Lines of Communication Area. She became principal matron, First Australian Army, in January 1945. From the formation’s headquarters at Lae, New Guinea, she visited medical units in New Guinea, New Britain, and Bougainville.

In February 1946 White sailed for Sydney and on 30 March transferred to the Reserve of Officers. After nursing in New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland, and overseas on the Isle of Wight and in the Bahamas, she retired to Brisbane. She died on 25 May 1988 in a nursing home at Kenmore and was cremated with Anglican rites. Mourners at her funeral included former army nursing colleagues.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Goodman, Our War Nurses (1988)
  • A. Grant, Australia’s Frontline Matron (1991)
  • D. Carment and B. James (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 2 (1992)
  • B883, item NFX136230 (National Archives of Australia)
  • AWM119, item 261 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Ruth Rae, 'White, Edith Alexandra (1901–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-edith-alexandra-15807/text27006, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 August 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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