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Ethel Jessie Bowe (1906–1961)

by Jan Bassett

This article was published:

Ethel Jessie Bowe (1906-1961), by R. B. Irving

Ethel Jessie Bowe (1906-1961), by R. B. Irving

Australian War Memorial, 065658

Ethel Jessie Bowe (1906-1961), army matron-in-chief, was born on 27 May 1906 at Maldon, Victoria, fifth of eleven children of Abraham James Bowe, bricklayer, and his wife Edith Jane, née Dorman, both Victorian born. The family lived in a stone cottage built by Jessie's paternal grandfather. She attended Maldon State School, worked in the local hospital and trained as a nurse at Melbourne Hospital in 1927-30. Having completed midwifery at Queen Victoria Hospital, she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve in 1931 and returned to the Melbourne next year; she was a tutor-sister at Perth Hospital in 1935-38 and at the Melbourne in 1939.

Appointed sister in the A.A.N.S. on 19 December 1939, Bowe was called up in March 1940 for service with the Australian Imperial Force. Two months later she sailed for the Middle East in charge of thirty-two nurses from the 2nd/2nd Australian General Hospital. Diverted to England, they were attached to the 2nd/3rd A.G.H. at Godalming, Surrey, during the Battle of Britain. Bowe finally reached Egypt in December and began work with the 2nd/2nd A.G.H. at Kantara. From April to June 1941, as temporary matron, she helped to establish the 2nd/11th A.G.H. at Alexandria, amidst a rush of casualties from the Western Desert, Greece and Crete. She became matron of the 2nd/2nd A.G.H. in September. Back in Australia in March 1942, she took three months leave, then rejoined her unit at Watten, Queensland. For her resourceful and capable administration of the hospital, she was awarded the Associate Royal Red Cross (1944). In March 1943, with the rank of major, she transferred to Melbourne as assistant to the matron-in-chief. Promoted temporary lieutenant colonel and appointed principal matron, Advanced Land Headquarters, in February 1945, Bowe was based on Morotai Island from April to November; she was to be awarded (1948) the United States of America's Bronze Star medal for her services.

In early 1946 she became matron of the 115th Military (Repatriation General) Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne, and from March 1947 held the additional post of principal matron, Southern Command. Bowe sailed for Europe in November with a group of German and Italian internees and prisoners of war. Her A.A.N.S. appointment terminated on her arrival in England in January 1948. Following several months of advanced training, she went to Austria as chief nurse for the International Refugee Organization; in 1950 she came home to Victoria to be matron at the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg. 'Bowie', as she was widely known, rejoined the Australian Military Forces in June 1951. Appointed matron-in-chief and granted the rank of honorary colonel on 17 September 1952, she administered the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps with determination, putting 'the service on a footing unequalled in the Commonwealth'. She was awarded a Florence Nightingale medal (1953) and the Royal Red Cross (1955), and in 1957 was appointed honorary nursing sister to Queen Elizabeth II. Active in professional organizations, Bowe gave the eighth annual oration for the New South Wales College of Nursing in 1960; she was appointed O.B.E. that year.

Miss Bowe, who was five feet (153 cm) tall, with blue eyes, light brown hair, elfin features and considerable charm, impressed her colleagues as being 'every inch a lady'. Having suffered from cancer for six years, she died on 13 October 1961 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg; following an Anglican service with full military honours at Christ Church, South Yarra, she was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (Canb, 1961)
  • The New South Wales College of Nursing Annual Orations, 1953-1976 (Syd, 1977)
  • G. Blackman and J. Larkin, Australia's First Notable Town, Maldon (Syd, 1978)
  • E. W. Gault and A. Lucas, A Century of Compassion (Melb, 1982)
  • P. Adam-Smith, Australian Women at War (Melb, 1984)
  • R. Goodman, Our War Nurses (Brisb, 1988)
  • Australian Army Nursing Service and Royal Australia Army Nursing Corps records (Department of Defence, Canberra)
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

Jan Bassett, 'Bowe, Ethel Jessie (1906–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ethel Jessie Bowe (1906-1961), by R. B. Irving

Ethel Jessie Bowe (1906-1961), by R. B. Irving

Australian War Memorial, 065658

Life Summary [details]


27 May, 1906
Maldon, Victoria, Australia


13 October, 1961 (aged 55)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.