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Ethel Sarah Davidson (1872–1939)

by Jacqueline Abbott

This article was published:

Ethel Sarah Davidson (1872-1939), nurse, was born on 19 June 1872 in Adelaide, daughter of William Davidson, Scottish-born master mariner, and his second wife Elizabeth Jane, née Green. She was orphaned at the age of 5 when her father's brigantine, the Emily Smith, was wrecked on Kangaroo Island in May 1877. Her two young brothers and baby sister also drowned. Ethel was the only member of the family not on board the vessel. She was left with three grown half-brothers and three half-sisters from her father's first marriage, all resident in Adelaide.

No details of her education are known but Ethel Davidson trained as a nurse at the Adelaide Hospital, then became district nurse at Prospect. She later engaged in district and private nursing and for some time was on the Central Board of Health. In 1904 she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. She was working as district nurse at Prospect when on 26 September 1914 she enlisted as a sister in the A.A.N.S., Australia Imperial Force. She left Australia with the first contingent and on reaching Egypt in December was appointed to the Convalescent Depot, Mena; from August 1915 to January 1916 she was acting matron. She was then made temporary matron of the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Cairo and, for distinguished service there, was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Royal Red Cross, 2nd class. On 24 June she relinquished this position, reverting to the rank of head sister and embarking for London for a six-month appointment in the medical section, A.I.F. Headquarters. She then served briefly at the 2nd A.A.H., Southall, before crossing to France on 28 February 1917 for duty at the 2nd Australian General Hospital, Wimereux. In March she was transferred, as acting matron, to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Trois Arbres, near Steenwerck.

In July Sister Davidson was sent to Italy as temporary matron of the 38th British Stationary Hospital near Genoa; her rank was confirmed in January 1918. During that year, for distinguished service and devotion to duty, she was again mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Royal Red Cross, 1st class. She returned to England in January 1919, serving briefly as matron of the 2nd A.A.H. at Southall. Before embarking for Australia she was appointed C.B.E. in the King's Birthday honours of 3 June.

Matron Davidson was demobilized on 5 December 1919 and that month was appointed matron of the military hospital at Keswick, Adelaide; from 1924 she was also principal matron of the 4th Military District. The hospital was taken over by the Repatriation Commission in 1921 but she remained matron there until she reached retiring age in June 1933. She was president of the Returned Army Nurses' Association of South Australia in 1922-26 and was largely responsible for obtaining the charter which made the association a sub-branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League in 1924.

After a three-month illness Matron Davidson died of cardiovascular and renal disease on 21 April 1939 at her home at Semaphore. The Adelaide News reported: 'Her death, almost on the eve of Anzac Day, has cast a gloom over Keswick Hospital. She will be mourned by large numbers of patients and hundreds of returned soldiers with whom she came in contact when on active service and in South Australia'. The Rising Sun described her as 'a woman of outstanding character' and 'an exceptionally able leader and organiser'. She was buried in the A.I.F. cemetery, West Terrace, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • Nursing in South Australia: First Hundred Years 1837-1937, (Adel, 1939)
  • G. D. Chapman, Kangaroo Island Shipwrecks (Canb, 1972)
  • Rising Sun (Adelaide), May 1939
  • Reveille (Sydney), June 1939
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21-31 May, 2, 8, 14 June 1877, 22 Apr 1939
  • News (Adelaide), 21 Apr 1939
  • S. G. Kenny, The Australian Army Nursing Service During the Great War (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975)
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Jacqueline Abbott, 'Davidson, Ethel Sarah (1872–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 June, 1872
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


21 April, 1939 (aged 66)
Semaphore, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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