Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Margaret Graham (1860–1942)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published:

Margaret Graham (1860-1942), nursing sister and army matron, was born on 15 February 1860 at Carlisle, Cumberland, England, daughter of John Graham, journeyman house-painter, and his wife Margaret, née Farrer. Nothing is known of her early life or of the circumstances which brought her to Australia. She entered the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital as a probationer on 2 April 1891, was recommended for promotion to charge nurse on 22 October 1894 and acted in this position until 15 February 1895 when her promotion was cancelled for alleged insubordination; she was later dismissed.

On 5 January Nurse Graham had signed a letter sent by five other charge nurses to Premier C. C. Kingston, requesting an independent inquiry into 'unjust treatment' of Charge Nurse Louise Hawkins by the hospital board. Nurse Hawkins had protested against the promotion, over better-qualified and more efficient nurses, of Nurse A. H. Gordon, sister of the colony's chief secretary, (Sir) J. H. Gordon. The board considered the letter 'disrespectful' and urged the nurses to withdraw their statements. The other five did so, but although she had had nothing to gain personally by signing the letter Margaret Graham 'refused to retract', insisting that an injustice had been done to fourteen senior nurses. She remained intransigent and was dismissed on 4 March. The chief secretary and the hospital's medical superintendent then offered her positions in other hospitals which she denounced publicly as 'bribes for silence'. She attacked the chief secretary in a public letter dated 6 March imputing improper motives to the hospital board, the medical superintendent and the matron, and calling for an independent inquiry. A long and bitter public controversy followed which resulted in a royal commission into the management of the Adelaide Hospital. In evidence before the commission in March Graham described Nurse Gordon's appointment as 'a glaring piece of favoritism', asked why no members of the hospital board had spoken out against the 'tomfoolery' surrounding her own dismissal, and attacked the premier for his 'meally-mouthed utterances' during the dispute. The commission's progress report, issued in April, recommended her reinstatement. The government accepted this recommendation, whereupon the medical superintendent and the matron resigned. The reinstatement also contributed to the resignation of the entire honorary medical staff, the dismissal of the hospital board and the disruption of all clinical teaching at the hospital. J. H. Gordon resigned his office at the same time.

Margaret Graham was appointed charge nurse by the government in March 1896 and, because of her competence, dedication and high principles, quickly lived down her reputation as a rebel. On 1 January 1898 she was promoted matron, a position which she held with distinction until 1920. She was an excellent nurse and trainer of nurses but an indifferent administrator and left most of her book-work to her superintendent of night nurses. She was a foundation member of the South Australian Branch of the Royal British Nurses' Association and was its elected lady consul in 1900-20; she was also active in the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association.

In 1904 she had become the first lady superintendent in the State of the Australian Army Nursing Service and in August 1914 enlisted in the A.A.N.S., Australian Imperial Force, as a matron. One of the first three nurses to leave Australia on active service, she embarked at Melbourne in December and served in Egypt in 1915-16 at the 1st Australian General Hospital, Heliopolis, and at Ghezireh and Choubra. She also worked on hospital ships carrying wounded from Gallipoli. She was mentioned in dispatches in October 1916 and awarded the Royal Red Cross, 1st class, in December. In January 1917 she left Suez for Australia on transport duty on a troopship, re-embarked in May, and in July was attached to the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Dartford, England. She served there until January 1918 when she was posted to the medical offices at A.I.F. Headquarters, London. She was discharged, medically unfit, from the A.I.F. on 28 August. She returned to the Adelaide Hospital as matron but after May 1919 was transferred temporarily to the Exhibition Building, Adelaide, to superintend the nursing of pneumonic influenza cases. She resigned her matronship in December 1920 and left Australia early next year to settle in England.

Margaret Graham was a spirited, forthright, highly intelligent woman with a ready wit and strong leadership qualities. During her matronship nearly 3000 nurses came under her care and she won the 'esteem and affections' of most of them. On her resignation the Australasian Nurses' Journal praised her 'breadth of mind and unfailing justice'. She died, unmarried, at Carlisle, England, on 4 July 1942.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Trained Nurses' Centenary Committee, Nursing in South Australia 1837-1937 (Adel, 1939)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Service in the War of 1914-18, vol 3 (Canb, 1943)
  • J. E. Hughes, A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital (Adel, 1967)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1896 (20, 21)
  • Australasian Nurses' Journal, Oct 1909, Apr 1917, Dec 1919, Apr, May, Dec 1920, Aug 1942
  • London Gazette, 1, 29 Dec 1916
  • Register (Adel), Oct 1896–Jan 1897
  • Herald (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1917
  • Observer (Adelaide), 11 Dec 1920
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 Jan 1921
  • press cuttings file, Adelaide Hospital dispute (held by South Australian Branch, Australian Medical Association, Adelaide)
  • M. A. Heaney, The Adelaide Hospital Dispute 1894-1902 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1980)
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Graham, Margaret (1860–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1860
Carlisle, Cumberland, England


4 July, 1942 (aged 82)
Carlisle, Cumberland, England

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