Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary McKenzie Finlay (1870–1923)

by Susan Kenny

This article was published:

Mary McKenzie Finlay (1870-1923), matron, was born on 28 January 1870 at Kilmore, Victoria, eldest child of James Finlay, station manager and later land valuer, from Coleraine, Londonderry, Ireland, and his native-born wife Elizabeth, née Hill. Mary and her eleven brothers and sisters spent their childhood on a pastoral property at Towaninnie in north-western Victoria and were educated by a governess. In 1890 the family moved to Melbourne.

On 16 December 1896 Mary Finlay began training as a nurse at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital and completed her certificate on 16 February 1900. She remained at the hospital as sister-in-charge of surgical ward 22 until she completed her matron's certificate of technical fitness in December 1907 and accepted the position of matron at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. As hospital sister and school matron she was regarded as a first-class nurse who was much loved by her patients and noted for her kindness, devotion and perennial good temper. At the Exhibition of Australian Women's Work held in Melbourne in October 1907, she was awarded the essay-prize for surgical nursing.

Mary Finlay had been among the first enlistments in the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1904. When war began in 1914 she volunteered for overseas service with the A.A.N.S.; joining the Australian Imperial Force on 11 October, she embarked on the transport Shropshire nine days later and was one of the first six Victorian nurses to be sent on active service. On arrival in Egypt Sister Finlay was attached to the staff of the 1st Australian General Hospital, then in July 1915 she became matron-in-charge of Ras-el-Tin Convalescent Home at Alexandria.

On 25 March 1916, before embarking for France, she was appointed matron of the 1st A.G.H. which was to be stationed at Rouen. Working under primitive and arduous conditions she established this large military hospital and was its matron for almost two years. In her first winter at Rouen there was a shortage of such basic necessities as water and stoves with which to keep patients and staff warm. In recognition of her services at Rouen she was awarded the Royal Red Cross (1st class) in December 1916. She left France in February 1918 to become matron at the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Southall England, which had been established for the treatment of limbless servicemen. She remained there until January 1919 when she embarked for Australia.

Matron Finlay was demobilized on 26 July and resumed her position at Melbourne Grammar School. The demands of war service had seriously undermined her health and in 1922 she resigned. She died, unmarried, at Warrandyte of cancer on 21 March 1923 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery after a special service in the school chapel.

Sister Finlay had been an early member of the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses' Association, honorary secretary of its council in 1910-22 and vice-president in 1920-22. In these capacities she had shown a keen interest in her profession and in the maintenance of high standards of nursing training and practice.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vols 1, 2, 3 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • K. S. Inglis, Hospital and Community (Melb, 1958)
  • Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Liber Melburniensis, centenary ed (Melb, 1965)
  • London Gazette, 29 Dec 1916
  • Una, June 1904, Dec 1907, July 1909, Sept 1914, July 1915, Sept 1916, Oct 1920, Oct 1921, May 1922, Apr 1923
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, Dec 1942
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 July 1919
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23, 24 Mar 1923
  • war diaries, 1st Australian General Hospital, 1916-18, and 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, 1916-19 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Kenny, 'Finlay, Mary McKenzie (1870–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 June 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]


28 January, 1870
Kilmore, Victoria, Australia


21 March, 1923 (aged 53)
Warrandyte, Victoria, Australia

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