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Margaret Irene Anderson (1915–1995)

by Ruth Rae

This article was published:

Margaret Anderson, by Henry Hanke, 1943

Margaret Anderson, by Henry Hanke, 1943

Australian War Memorial, ART22211

Margaret Irene Anderson (1915–1995), nurse, was born on 11 December 1915 at Malvern, Melbourne, daughter of New South Wales-born Charles Anderson, driver (later foreman), and his Victorian-born wife Jessie Blanchrie, née Urquhart. In 1940 she finished her nurse training at the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg, and soon after completed a massage certificate. Known as Madge within her family, she was a brunette with grey, determined eyes who stood five feet six inches (168 cm) tall.

Volunteering for service in World War II, on 3 October 1940 Anderson was appointed a staff nurse, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). After a brief period of home service, on 8 September she transferred to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for overseas duties. She was attached to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital (AGH) based in Singapore on 20 November. Only four days before the fall of the fortress, she was one of a party of nurses who on 11 February 1942 reluctantly boarded the cargo ship Empire Star to be evacuated, effectively abandoning some of their patients. The ship sailed the next day. Nurses who remained in Singapore would embark on the Vyner Brooke and either die at sea, be massacred on Banka Island, or be interned for the remainder of the war.

Although the Empire Star had accommodation for only sixteen passengers, on this voyage it carried more than 2,100 people, including wounded personnel, nurses, physiotherapists, airmen, and civilians. En route to Batavia (Jakarta), Netherlands East Indies, the ship came under fire from enemy planes, and a cabin in which Anderson and other nurses were tending seriously wounded men began to fill with smoke and fumes. Anderson and her colleagues moved the patients on to the open deck but the enemy returned and machine-gunned the vessel. During these attacks she remained on deck sheltering her patients, many of whom were badly injured. At one stage she threw herself across a patient to protect him from the bullets. Many who witnessed her actions commended her for her bravery, for which she was to be awarded the George Medal in September. The Empire Star made it safely to Batavia from where, after emergency repairs, she berthed at Fremantle, Western Australia, on 25 February.

Anderson recuperated and returned to nursing in Victoria at the 49th Camp Hospital, Wangaratta, and the 115th AGH, Heidelberg, for the remainder of 1942. She was promoted to sister in July. Eager to return to military nursing, and despite her ordeal at sea, she joined the hospital ship Wanganella in January 1943. The AANS was incorporated into the AIF in December and nurses afforded military rank. Lieutenant Anderson continued to serve on the Wanganella, apart from brief attachments to military hospitals in Australia, until August 1945, collecting the sick and wounded from New Guinea and travelling as far afield as Taranto, Italy, to pick up prisoners of war. On 5 June 1946 she transferred to the Reserve of Officers after contracting bronchiectasis, a war-induced condition.

After the war Anderson continued to reside at Malvern, working as a clerk for a number of years. On 14 November 1956 at the Presbyterian church, Malvern, she married Allen Ronald O’Bryan, a farmer; he died in 1965, aged only fifty-four years. A long-time sufferer of heart disease, she died of pneumonia on 16 July 1995 at Long Island Village, Frankston, and was cremated. Portraits of her by Henry Hanke and Napier Waller are held in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial, and the National Portrait Gallery, respectively.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Adam-Smith, Patsy. Australian Women at War. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1984
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Bombing Attack on Convoy.’ 6 March 1942, 3
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Bravery of Nurses on Bombed Ship.’ 23 September 1942, 1
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Won Bravery Awards.’ 24 September 1942, 3
  • Bassett, Jan. Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992
  • Goodman, Rupert. Our War Nurses: The History of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corp 1902–1988. Brisbane: Boolarong Publications, 1988
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, Anderson, Margaret Irene.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ruth Rae, 'Anderson, Margaret Irene (1915–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Margaret Anderson, by Henry Hanke, 1943

Margaret Anderson, by Henry Hanke, 1943

Australian War Memorial, ART22211

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • O'Bryan, Margaret Irene

11 December, 1915
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


16 July, 1995 (aged 79)
Frankston, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


Military Service