Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Jane Bell (1873–1959)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published:

Jane Bell (1873-1959), hospital matron, was born on 16 March 1873 at Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, daughter of William Bell, farmer, and his wife Helen, née Johnston. Jane was educated at a small school near Dumfries. When both parents and four of the children died of tuberculosis, Jane and her surviving brother and two sisters were helped by their local Presbyterian congregation to migrate to Sydney, arriving in 1886.

In December 1894 Jane began training as a nurse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, completing her certificate in May 1898. She held various staff appointments until April 1903 when she became matron first at Bundaberg Hospital, Queensland, following her sister Euphemia who had trained at Sydney Hospital, and then in September 1904 at the Brisbane General Hospital. She resigned on 31 July 1906 to go to London where she trained in midwifery at Queen Charlotte's Hospital. In 1907 she was appointed senior assistant superintendent of nurses at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. She returned to Australia, and in 1910-34 was lady superintendent of the Melbourne Hospital, bringing to the position, besides her sound training and considerable experience, qualities of leadership, determination and vision.

Despite those attributes Miss Bell had a brief, unhappy period overseas with the Australian Army Nursing Service. Appointed lady superintendent of the Third Military District in June 1913, on the outbreak of war she recruited the Victorian section of the nursing staff of the 1st Australian General Hospital; she was principal matron aboard the hospital ship Kyarra which left for Egypt in December 1914. At the time the position, status, authority and working conditions of army nurses were undefined. Promoted to matron inspectress in June next year, Miss Bell waged an incessant battle with the Army Medical Service, seeking to clarify the position and responsibilities of the nursing service and to place its control and discipline in the hands of its own members. When her staffing recommendations were rejected in July 1915 she asked to be transferred or returned to Australia. In August both Matron Bell and her commanding officer were recalled; she reached Australia in September unaware that an inquiry had been held in the meantime into the administration of the A.G.H. Although she had been unable to defend herself, her stand was vindicated by the court and the way paved for the reorganization in 1916 of the Australian Army medical and nursing services.

On the termination of her A.I.F. appointment in October 1915 Miss Bell was reinstated at Melbourne Hospital. She made many innovations including: replacement of male orderlies by sisters in the operating theatres; the appointment of tutor-sisters to instruct trainees and of a house-sister to supervise the nurses' quarters; and the introduction of a six-week preliminary course. She also persuaded the hospital's committee of management to pay trainee-nurses. Her introduction of a four instead of a three-year course did not survive the passing of the Nurses' Registration Act (1923), for which she had campaigned, but the new rank of staff-nurse, before promotion to sister, filled the hiatus. As working hours were reduced and the staff-patient ratio improved, nurses in the hospital increased from 100 in 1910 to 200 in 1934.

Jane Bell was a foundation member, in 1899, of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association and in 1910 became a member of the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses' Association (later the Royal Victorian College of Nursing), of which she was president in 1931-34 and 1938-46. She was a member of the Nurses' Board in 1924-50. Qualifications, salaries and working conditions for the profession were her constant concern, and in later years she took part in the development of postgraduate training. She was appointed O.B.E. in 1944. She died at the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 6 August 1959, aged 86, and was cremated after a Presbyterian service.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services … 1914-18, vols 1, 2 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940)
  • K. S. Inglis, Hospital and Community (Melb, 1958)
  • Una, May-Aug, Oct 1934, Oct 1959
  • M. E. Webster, ‘The history of trained nursing in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 19 (1941-42), no 4
  • Age (Melbourne), 7, 8 Aug 1959
  • S. G. Kenny, The Australian Army Nursing Service During the Great War (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Bell, Jane (1873–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 March, 1873
Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland


6 August, 1959 (aged 86)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.