Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dame Johanna Brazill (1895–1988)

by Susan Priestley

This article was published:

Dame Johanna Brazill (1895-1988), Sister of Mercy, nurse and hospital administrator, known as Sister Mary Philippa, was born on 24 December 1895 at Bosnetstown, Kilfinane, County Limerick, Ireland, daughter of Thomas Brazill, farmer, and his wife Julia, née Dwane. While still at school, Johanna responded to a recruiting drive in Ireland by the Victorian Institute of Our Lady of Mercy. She sailed with a party of novices and arrived in Melbourne aboard the Omrah on 23 September 1912. Sent immediately to the Sacred Heart convent, Newtown, Geelong, to complete her secondary education, she was professed as Sister Mary Philippa on 10 January 1918. Next year she studied at the Mater Misericordiae Novitiate and Training College, Ascot Vale, Melbourne, under the vibrant Sister Patricia O’Neill. Sister Philippa taught at Coburg and in 1924 was principal of St Mary’s School for Girls, West Melbourne.

During a school vacation Sister Philippa visited St Benedict’s Hospital, Malvern, and met its administrator, Mother Francis Hanigan, who asked her to switch to nursing. At first she resisted because she liked teaching but eventually agreed to the change. After completing a three-year training course at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane, she returned to St Benedict’s in January 1928. She accompanied Mother Francis on a six-month inspection tour of hospitals in the United States of America in 1930. With (Sir) Arthur Stephenson, the two women developed plans for a `first-class’ private hospital in East Melbourne. From the opening of the Mercy Private Hospital in 1935, Sister Philippa was its nursing director. She succeeded Mother Francis as hospital and community superior in 1948. During her tenure the Order reinvigorated its drive for a public maternity hospital to be built on a site adjoining the private institution.

In 1954 Mother Philippa transferred to Rosanna as provincial of the Order’s Victoria-Tasmania region. Using her wide understanding of health care, she improved the diet and general welfare of all her communities. She returned to the Mercy as superior in 1959. Over the next decade, she was deeply involved with medical, nursing, university and government authorities in planning for the new Mercy Maternity Hospital, which was to include a clinical teaching unit. It was formally opened on 11 February 1971.

Sister Philippa had stepped down as hospital superior in 1969. She was appointed DBE in 1979. The University of Melbourne awarded her an honorary doctorate of laws in 1981. Dubbed the `Steel Maiden’ by doctors, she saw herself as a woman who had `been liberated all [her] life’. Her `extremely directive’ personality was tempered by a comprehensive insight into the care of patients, a `delightful Irish wit’, a `rare sensitivity’ and a deep compassion inspired by her faith. For recreation she read, listened to classical music and watched Australian Rules football on television. She died on 1 January 1988 at Newtown, Geelong, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery, Carlton. Her Order established a foundation in her name to support research into and education in the ethics of health care.

Select Bibliography

  • M. G. Allen, The Labourers’ Friends (1989)
  • S. Priestley, Melbourne’s Mercy (1990) and for sources
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 3 July 1979, p 12
  • Australian Nurses Journal, Aug 1979, p 7
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Aug 1981, p 5.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Susan Priestley, 'Brazill, Dame Johanna (1895–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sister Philippa
  • Mary Philippa, Sister
  • Mary Philippa, Mother

24 December, 1895
Bosnetstown, Limerick, Ireland


1 January, 1988 (aged 92)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

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