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Muriel Knox Doherty (1896–1988)

by R. Lynette Russell

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Muriel Knox Doherty (1896-1988), nurse and air force principal matron, was born on 19 July 1896 at Armadale, Melbourne, eldest of four children of Victorian-born parents Robert Knox Doherty, clerk, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Meudell. Taught at home by a governess until the family moved to Wollstonecraft, Sydney, about 1909, Muriel completed her education at Woodstock private school, North Sydney. In 1914 she was employed as the school nurse and an unqualified teacher at Abbotsleigh, Wahroonga. That year she gained the St John Ambulance Association’s first aid and home nursing certificate. In 1915-21 she was a member of the Australian Red Cross Society’s No.6 Voluntary Aid Detachment, North Sydney, working at the Sydney, Mater Misericordiae and Royal Prince Alfred hospitals. She left Abbotsleigh in 1917 so that she could be a full-time VAD while helping her mother at home.

In 1921 Doherty commenced nursing training at RPAH. She passed her final examination in November 1925, winning the Sir Alfred Roberts medal for general proficiency, and was registered on 10 February next year. Becoming a charge nurse in the gynaecology ward, she was promoted within six months to sister-in-charge. She sailed for England early in 1930, took up a number of private nursing positions in Britain and on the Continent, and travelled extensively. In 1932 she enrolled in the sister tutor course offered by King’s College for Household and Social Science, University of London. Returning next year to RPAH, she was appointed a tutor sister. In 1936 she introduced a preliminary training school for nurses at the hospital. She transferred to Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay, in 1937. Active in the New South Wales Nurses’ Association, she was treasurer (1935) and a member of the executive council.

Doherty had been appointed a staff nurse in the reserve of the Australian Army Nursing Service in August 1935. Following the outbreak of World War II, in October 1939 she was called up for full-time duty. On 16 September 1940 she transferred to the twomonths-old Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service as matron of No.3 RAAF Hospital, Richmond, New South Wales, and principal nursing officer for No.2 Training Group and all units in New South Wales and Queensland. Her rank on entry was squadron leader. She assisted the matron-in-chief Margaret Lang to organise the new service in the region for which she was responsible. Doherty was promoted to principal matron (wing commander) in March 1943 and was acting matron-in-chief at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne, in January-July 1944. Concurrently she was a member (1943-44) of a State government committee for reorganisation of the nursing profession (in New South Wales), and co-author of a textbook, Modern Practical Nursing Procedures (1944). Awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1945, she was demobilised from the RAAF at her own request on 22 May that year.

Keen to work in war-devastated Europe, Doherty immediately joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and was appointed matron to the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany. A London newspaper of the time described her as `a practical-looking woman with a kindly smile’. After a year she was sent to Poland to assist in the rehabilitation of nursing education there. In October 1946 she was back in Sydney. At the inaugural meeting in December of the National Florence Nightingale Memorial Committee of Australia she and Agnes Walsh were elected vice-presidents; Doherty was also elected convener of the education sub-committee. She helped to establish and became a foundation fellow (1949) of the New South Wales College of Nursing.

In 1955-56 Doherty travelled widely in Europe studying developments in geriatrics. She wrote a number of reports on her findings and a small monograph, Caring for the Elderly (1956). In 1958 she organised the first `Old People’s Week’ for the Old People’s Welfare Council of New South Wales.

Doherty lived in England in 1961-68. Back in Sydney, she took up residence in the Queen Mary Nurses’ Home at RPAH so that she could undertake research for a history of `her’ hospital. She died on 29 September 1988 at West Ryde and was cremated. Throughout her career she had kept a record of her experiences and had collected documents and other nursing memorabilia. She had arranged for most of her papers to be placed in the archives of the New South Wales College of Nursing. Other material was deposited in the State Library of New South Wales, the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem. Her autobiography, Off the Record, and her history, The Life and Times of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (both edited by Lynette Russell) were published in 1996. Letters from Belsen 1945, edited by Russell and Judith Cornell, appeared in 2000.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Pratt and R. L. Russell, A Voice to Be Heard (2002)
  • Lamp, Nov 1988, p 32
  • series A9301, item 501020 and series B884, item N60136 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Doherty collection (State Library of Australia, Australian War Memorial, College of Nursing, Burwood, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. Lynette Russell, 'Doherty, Muriel Knox (1896–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 June 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

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