Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilson, Grace Margaret (1879–1957)

by Janice McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Grace Margaret Wilson (1879-1957), by Edward L. F. Cranstone, 1940

Grace Margaret Wilson (1879-1957), by Edward L. F. Cranstone, 1940

Australian War Memorial, 000498

Grace Margaret Wilson (1879-1957), nursing sister and army matron-in-chief, was born on 25 June 1879 in South Brisbane, eldest child of John Pearson Wilson, clerk, and his wife Fanny Campbell, née Lang, both Scottish born. Educated at Brisbane Girls' Grammar School, Grace entered Brisbane Hospital as a probationer in 1905 and gained her certificate in 1908. In London she trained in midwifery at Queen Charlotte's Lying-in Hospital before joining the staff of the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic (Albany Memorial).

Back in Queensland, she became matron of Brisbane Hospital in July 1914. Joining the Australian Army Nursing Service in October, she was appointed principal matron of the 1st Military District. On 15 April 1915 Wilson transferred to the Australian Imperial Force; as principal matron of the 3rd Australian General Hospital, she embarked for England in May. The hospital was transferred to Lemnos to treat Anzac casualties; with her staff, she arrived there in early August to find conditions 'too awful for words'. Their equipment had been delayed: there were few tents and mattresses, no beds, and only spirit lamps for cooking and sterilizing. Encouraging the nurses to contend with such primitive conditions, she soon created order out of chaos; by 13 August the hospital was treating 900 patients. Dysentery became a later problem and winter brought men suffering from frost-bite and gangrene. Despite all difficulties, the hospital's mortality rate was only 2 per cent.

Early in 1916 the 3rd A.G.H. was transferred to Abbassia, Egypt. Mentioned in dispatches three times that year, Matron Wilson was awarded the Royal Red Cross, 1st class, in May. She moved with the hospital to Brighton, England, in October, and to Abbeville, France, in April 1917. The unit initially had 1500 beds and expanded to 2000.

In September she was appointed temporary matron-in-chief at A.I.F. Headquarters, London, to relieve Matron Conyers. Although Wilson enjoyed the administrative experience, she longed to be back with 'her family' at Abbeville. Returning there in April 1918, by judgement, tact and ability she ensured a high standard of conduct. Again mentioned in dispatches in December, she was appointed C.B.E. on 1 January 1919. After the 3rd A.G.H. was dismantled in May, she was posted to the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Dartford, Kent, before coming home to Queensland in January 1920. Her A.I.F. appointment ended in April.

As matron from November 1920 of the Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Wilson improved conditions for her nurses and succeeded in winning trainees a nominal wage. Openly critical of the hospital committee, she resigned two years later and bought a private hospital, Somerset House, in East Melbourne. In January 1933 she became matron of the Alfred Hospital. Determined to improve the standard of nursing, she formed a training school committee, appointed two tutor sisters and introduced an orientation course for probationers.

Wilson had become matron-in-chief of the army nursing reserve in August 1925. Awarded the Florence Nightingale medal in 1929, she led the A.A.N.S.'s coronation contingent in London in 1937. She resigned from the Alfred when she was called up for full-time duty in World War II. Appointed to the A.I.F. in September 1940, she served in the Middle East until ill health forced her return to Australia in August 1941; her A.I.F. appointment ended next month. On 15 September 1943 she became executive officer, nursing control section, Department of Manpower Directorate (Victoria).

A life member of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association, Wilson was a council-member of the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses' Association and sometime president of its successor, the Royal Victorian College of Nursing; she helped to establish postgraduate training courses. Three times president of the Returned Nurses' Club, she was a trustee of the Edith Cavell Trust Fund and of the Shrine of Remembrance, and in 1953 was made a life member of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia. She was also active in the Australian Red Cross Society and the Girl Guides' Association, and belonged to the Lyceum Club.

Tall, slim and attractive in her youth, Wilson had that 'rare quality which inspired deep and lasting loyalty'. A self-disciplined leader, she had a sympathetic ear for her staff; believing it a privilege to help soldiers, she was proud of the A.A.N.S. She had a great gift for living.

During a visit to London, on 12 January 1954 Grace Wilson married Robert Wallace Bruce Campbell at Holy Trinity parish church, Roehampton. Survived by her husband, she died on 12 January 1957 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne, and was cremated after a service with full military honours at Christ Church, South Yarra.

Select Bibliography

  • Who's Who in the World of Women, vol 1 (Melb, 1930)
  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (Canb, 1961)
  • L. Gardiner, Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne 1870-1970 (Melb, 1970)
  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • R. Goodman (ed), Queensland Nurses (Brisb, 1985)
  • R. Goodman, Our War Nurses (Brisb, 1988)
  • H. Gregory, A Tradition of Care (Brisb, 1988)
  • UNA, Jan 1957
  • Royal Brisbane Hospital nursing records
  • Royal Victorian College of Nursing records
  • Australian Army Nursing Service, seniority lists (Australian War Memorial) and records (Dept of Defence, Canberra)
  • G. Wilson personal diary, WWI (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Janice McCarthy, 'Wilson, Grace Margaret (1879–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-grace-margaret-9137/text16119, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Grace Margaret Wilson (1879-1957), by Edward L. F. Cranstone, 1940

Grace Margaret Wilson (1879-1957), by Edward L. F. Cranstone, 1940

Australian War Memorial, 000498