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Freda Mary Dowdle (1907–2000)

by Rebecca Fleming

This article was published online in 2023

Freda Mary Eliza Dowdle (1907–2000), army nurse and hospital matron, was born on 24 May 1907 at Narromine, New South Wales, second youngest of eight surviving children of Victorian-born John William Dowdle, teamster, and his New South Wales-born wife Harriet Louisa, née Parr. After a childhood in rural New South Wales, at age nineteen Freda moved to Sydney, where she undertook nursing training at Auburn District Hospital, registering as a general nurse in April 1931. She remained there for two years before working in hospitals at Coledale and Kiama. Undertaking further training in midwifery at St George Hospital, Kogarah, she earned her registration as a midwife in December 1936. She demonstrated leadership abilities early in her career with her work as acting matron of Manning River District Hospital at Taree commended in 1938 by the hospital board. Standing at five feet four inches (163 cm) with grey eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion, and a warm smile, her nursing job became a steely vocation to nurture ‘patients back to life’ (Australian Woman’s Weekly 1972).

Following the outbreak of World War II, on 2 January 1940 Dowdle was appointed as a sister in the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force. Later that month she was among the first group of AANS sisters to embark overseas during the war. Serving with the 2/1st Australian General Hospital (AGH), she was stationed at Gaza, Palestine. When it opened, the hospital was short of equipment and had no running water in the wards. Initially a 600-bed hospital, it was expanded to 2,200 beds during the Syrian campaign in June and July 1941 without an increase in staff to match the mounting casualties. In March 1942 she and the other nurses of the 2/1st AGH left the Middle East, as the 6th and 7th Divisions had been recalled to Australia.

On her return to Australia, Dowdle was promoted to temporary matron in June 1942 (major from March 1943). She served the remainder of the war in Australia as matron of the 103rd AGH at Baulkham Hills, New South Wales. In June 1945 she was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive from September). Demobilised in February 1946 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers, she maintained a connection with military nursing friends after the war, attending a reunion of the ‘Gaza Girls’ in 1948. She counted Ellen Savage, the only nurse to survive the sinking of AHS Centaur off Queensland, among her military nursing friends. Her connection with the ex-service community also extended to her membership in the local branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia.

In the postwar years Dowdle worked as matron of the Smith Family Recovery Hospital for Children at North Parramatta. She returned in 1948 to her old training ground—Auburn District Hospital—as matron and the following year became a foundation fellow of the New South Wales College of Nursing. There, in 1952, she led the care of sixty-eight casualties from the nearby Berala train accident which resulted in ten deaths. In 1957 she became the founding matron of Bankstown District Hospital, established to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. Initially an eighty-bed hospital, by November 1958 it had expanded to 200 beds. She frequently dealt with road accident casualties from three nearby highways. With funding and staff shortages a perennial concern for the hospital, she travelled to Malaysia in the late 1960s to recruit trainee nurses. Nursing standards under her leadership were high. By the 1960s the hospital was accredited to certify nurses for registration to work in England.

Dowdle retired from Bankstown hospital, and nursing, in May 1972, the day before her sixty-fifth birthday. Nonetheless, she remained connected to the nursing profession and attended graduation ceremonies for many years, until prevented by ill-health. She died on 16 December 2000 at Bethany Hostel, Eastwood. A much-loved family member was holding her hand when she died, singing her favourite hymn—‘Amazing Grace.’ She is commemorated at the Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens Crematorium at North Ryde. A ‘born nurse’ and leader, she was held in high esteem by doctors she worked alongside and was said to have ‘ruled the roost’ wherever she went (Laginestra 2022).

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Women's Weekly. ‘A Nurse Remembers.’ 19 July 1972, 56B
  • Bassett, Jan. Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney). ‘Pages for Women.’ 15 August 1948, 28
  • Laginestra, Fay. Interview by Rebecca Fleming, 22 January 2022
  • Museums of History NSW – State Archives Collection. NRS 10856
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX270
  • Peters, Merle. The Bankstown District Hospital: A History. Bankstown, NSW: Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital, 1994
  • Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer. ‘M.R.D. Hospital.’ 22 April 1938, 6

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Citation details

Rebecca Fleming, 'Dowdle, Freda Mary (1907–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 22 June 2024.

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