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Crouch, Elizabeth (Betty) (1917–1996)

by Susan R. Hemer

This article was published online in 2020

Elizabeth Mildred Crouch (1917–1996), Baptist missionary nurse, was born on 26 March 1917 at Mitcham, Melbourne, eldest of four daughters of Victorian-born parents Alick Crouch, fruit grower, and his wife Florence Ellen, née Middleton. Alick also had a daughter from a previous marriage to Florence’s sister Elizabeth (d. 1914). The family moved to Richmond, Adelaide, in 1924. Educated at Cowandilla Primary and Thebarton Technical High schools, Betty left school at fourteen to assist in her mother’s bakery and shop after Alick’s ill-health forced him to stop working.

In 1942 Crouch began nursing training at Mareeba Babies’ Hospital at Woodville. After gaining her infant certificate, she qualified as a general nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1944. She then trained in infectious diseases at the Metropolitan Infectious Diseases Hospital, Northfield, and in midwifery at Queen Victoria Hospital, Melbourne, finishing in 1946. Her first posting was back in South Australia, as charge nurse at Mount Gambier Hospital. Yet she had a desire to travel and work for those less fortunate.

Wishing to become a missionary, Crouch applied and was accepted for a posting in 1947 with the Bush Church Aid Society at Cook and Tarcoola in the west of the State. In 1948 she moved to Sydney for missionary training at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Croydon, and subsequently applied to the China Inland Mission. Unsuccessful, the next year she applied for a position as a female missionary and nurse with the newly constituted Baptist New Guinea Mission.

Having arrived in the Territory of Papua-New Guinea on 26 July 1949, Crouch spent three months at the Lutheran Mission hospital at Finschhafen learning about tropical medicine. She then moved to Port Moresby for four weeks with the medical practitioner and administrator Joan Refshauge and the public health department, where she was engaged in maternal and child health work. Having left Port Moresby to meet two more missionary women and nurses, she arrived at the Baiyer Valley on 14 November 1949. There she established a bush medical clinic, and contributed to the development of the Tinsley hospital, as well as a range of outreach clinics in villages, particularly for mothers and infants. She remained at the mission for eleven years, apart from three furloughs, and a short period (1955–56) at nearby Kompiam (Sau Valley), near Wabag.

In 1960 Crouch felt a calling to shift to Telefomin, a remote station town in the Western Highlands, and the site of the murder of two patrol officers in 1953. At the time the Australian colonial administration had a limited presence in the region, and movement by expatriates was restricted to a one-mile (1.6 km) radius around the station. Taking up her new post the next year, Crouch found high levels of malnutrition, infant mortality, and women’s morbidity and mortality. Supported by locally recruited maternal and infant health nurses, many of whom she had helped to train, she worked to improve the health of the local population. Jessie Wenben, a young woman from Eliptamin village, became Crouch’s companion and colleague, and later qualified as an infant and maternal welfare orderly. Crouch also raised funds for medical treatment by selling fossils, polished driftwood, and second-hand clothes, and she sought donations through Australian Rotary clubs. She set up fourteen outstation clinics in areas around Telefomin, which she serviced by air. With approval from the public health department and mission authorities, she introduced the contraceptive loop into Papua New Guinea, an initiative that ‘greatly reduced the incidence of malnutrition among infants’ (Kettle 2000, 250).

Appointed MBE in 1971, Crouch received the award at Buckingham Palace on 7 July the same year during a lecture tour of seventeen European countries. A slight woman with red hair, she was eloquent, formidable, and indefatigable, and ‘loved walking around the mountains,’ the best way, she believed, to ‘get to know people’ (Crouch 1981). She retired from overseas service in December 1974. Back in Adelaide, she set up a museum at her home at Crafers to educate people, including schoolchildren, about Papua New Guinea. Continuing to serve others, she worked with Meals on Wheels for at least fifteen years. She died in Adelaide on 31 July 1996 and was cremated. Her ashes were scattered at Telefomin in October, a plaque marking the site.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Bush Church Aid Society. Elizabeth Crouch: Information Required from Nurses Offering for Service. 1947. Copy held on ADB file
  • Cupit, Tony, Ros Gooden, and Ken Manley, eds. From Five Barley Loaves: Australian Baptists in Global Mission, 1864–2010. Preston, Vic.: Mosaic Press, 2013
  • Crouch, Elizabeth. Interview by Leslie Marshall, 1981. Medical History Research tapes. Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
  • Crouch, Elizabeth. A transcript of the report presented on her retirement at Telefomin, 1974. Copy held on ADB file
  • Kettle, Ellen. That They Might Live. Sydney: F. P. Leonard, 2000
  • Prior, Alan C. Into the Land That Time Forgot. Melbourne: Australian Baptist Mission Society, 1949
  • Redman, Jess. The Light Shines On: The Story of Missionary Outreach of the Baptist People of Australia 1882-1982. Melbourne: Australian Baptist Mission Society, 1982

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Susan R. Hemer, 'Crouch, Elizabeth (Betty) (1917–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crouch-elizabeth-betty-30020/text37244, published online 2020, accessed online 11 April 2021.

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