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Margaret Jean Hanna (1902–2000)

by Jason Smeaton

This article was published online in 2023

Portrait of Sr Hanna, by Robert Boese, 1940

Portrait of Sr Hanna, by Robert Boese, 1940

Australian War Memorial, P05182.036

Margaret Jean Hanna (1902–2000), nurse and army matron, was born on 1 October 1902 at Walwa, north-eastern Victoria, youngest of six children of Robert Hanna, grazier, and his wife Margaret, née Clyde, both Victorian born. Raised in a Presbyterian household, Jean attended the local State school, travelling daily by horseback, before boarding at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne (1917–18). Like her brothers, who had been stationed in Europe with the armed forces, at the end of World War I she settled back at home in the Upper Murray, where she ‘enjoyed country social life in that district’ (Hanna n.d.) for several years.

The family’s eldest son, Hugh, had come home from the battlefield with severe injuries and was cared for by his wife, a former army nurse. Witnessing this inspired Hanna to embark on a nursing career. In 1927, with her mother’s backing, she returned to Melbourne to commence general nursing training at the Alfred Hospital. She completed her qualification in 1930 and in 1931 undertook a year of midwifery training at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne. That year she became a theatre sister at the Alfred and was placed in charge of the operating theatre. In 1936 she sailed to England for an almost eighteen-month sojourn during which she practised nursing and travelled throughout Europe with friends. The growing threat of another war made the women ‘very nervous’; Hanna ‘felt there was something wrong somewhere but … was young enough and not worried that much about it’ (Hanna n.d.). She returned to Australia via Canada in 1937 and resumed her position at the Alfred a few months later.

Encouraged by her matron, the veteran army nurse Grace Wilson, Hanna joined the Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve in December 1939. On 13 February the following year she was called up for full-time duty with the AANS in the Australian Imperial Force. Arriving in the Middle East and attached to the 2/1st Casualty Clearing Station that May, she was one of the first Australian women to be posted overseas during World War II. She served in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria, principally with the 2/1st CCS, for almost two years. Conditions were hard and the working days long, often up to sixteen hours. In November 1941 she was promoted to matron and transferred to the 2/4th Australian General Hospital (AGH) the next month. From March 1942, under Japanese air attacks, she helped establish a military hospital in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), before returning to Australia in August.

Owing to her ‘exceptional devotion and competency,’ ‘outstanding organising ability,’ and ‘cheerfulness and poise in difficult situations’ (NAA: B883), Hanna was awarded the Royal Red Cross on 1 January 1945. In April she was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive, September). She served with the 2/4th AGH on Labuan, British Straits Settlements (Malaysia), from June and was present at the Japanese surrender on the island. In November 1945 she returned to Australia, where she worked in military hospitals until leaving the army on 28 August 1946.

Hanna returned to the Alfred as deputy matron. She was elected to the Nurses’ Board of Victoria in 1947 and was made a fellow of the College of Nursing, Australia, in 1949. Three years later she commenced her decade-long charge as the Alfred’s lady superintendent and director of nurse training. She commanded much respect; as she explained, her approach was to ‘be diplomatic, be fair, listen to everyone’ (Hudson 2001, 22). Considered a ‘reformist’ (Jones 2001, 10), at the Alfred she oversaw significant changes in nurses’ education and the profession: she allowed trainees to ‘live out,’ accepted men into the program, and promoted better pay. After decades of service at the hospital, when she reached the retirement age of sixty she stepped down from her position and was farewelled at a party attended by over five hundred of her colleagues. With much still to give to her profession, she joined the Children’s Health Bureau at Anzac House, Melbourne, as sister-in-charge, providing health care advice to the children of current and former soldiers until 1974.

At five feet eight inches (173 cm) tall, with ‘keen blue eyes’ and an ‘immense store of vitality,’ Hanna was described as a ‘matrons’ matron’ (Sibley 1962, 25). A supporter of the Melbourne Football Club, she devoted her retirement to her hobbies: gardening, playing cards, bay fishing, and golf. She died on 27 December 2000 at Richmond, Victoria, and was cremated at Springvale Crematorium. An important participant in Australian health care at home and abroad, over four decades Hanna made substantial contributions to the advancement of her profession and the education of nurses.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Hanna, Margaret (Jean) RRC.’ 29 December 2000, 19
  • Bassett, Jan. Guns and Brooches: Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992
  • Hanna, Margaret Jean. ‘A Summary for the Archives of P.L.C. Regarding the Life of Margaret Jean Hanna (born 1902).’ Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Presbyterian Ladies’ College Archives
  • Hanna, Margaret Jean. Interview by Harry Martin, 27 September 1990. Recording. The Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939–45. Australian War Memorial
  • Hudson, Susan. ‘Jean Hanna.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 2001, 22
  • Jones, Philip. ‘A Devotion to Healing.’ Australian, 15 January 2001, 10
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX378
  • Sibley, Sheila. ‘A Salute to the “Matrons’ Matron.”’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 September 1962, 25
  • Smith, Ailie. ‘Hanna, Margaret Jean (1902–2000).’ Encyclopedia of Australian Science and Innovation. Last modified 1 August 2007. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jason Smeaton, 'Hanna, Margaret Jean (1902–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Portrait of Sr Hanna, by Robert Boese, 1940

Portrait of Sr Hanna, by Robert Boese, 1940

Australian War Memorial, P05182.036

Life Summary [details]


1 October, 1902
Walwa, Victoria, Australia


27 December, 2000 (aged 98)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations