Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ethel Frances Hanrahan (1909–1981)

by Rosalind Hearder

This article was published:

Ethel Frances Hanrahan (1909-1981), army and repatriation hospital matron, was born on 6 May 1909 at Longreach, Queensland, eldest child of John Joseph Hanrahan, police constable, and his wife Ethel Frances, née Baker, both Queensland born. Young Ethel trained in nursing at Brisbane General Hospital in 1930-34 and worked at Rosemount Repatriation Hospital from 1935. On 15 December 1939 she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force, as a sister. She was 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with an olive complexion, grey eyes and black hair. Posted to the 2/3rd Field Ambulance, she arrived in Britain in June 1940 and was sent to the 2/3rd Australian General Hospital at Godalming, Surrey, in August. Five months later she proceeded to the Middle East for duty with the 2/2nd AGH at Kantara, Egypt. For her service there she was twice mentioned in despatches.

Returning to Australia in March 1942, Hanrahan was appointed matron of, successively, the 117th AGH at Toowoomba, Queensland (June), the 2nd Australian Women’s Hospital at Redbank (December 1943), and the 116th AGH at Charters Towers and Cairns (April 1944). From January 1945 she was matron of the 107th AGH in Darwin and principal matron, headquarters, Northern Territory Force. Appointed major in March 1943, she was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel in May 1945 (substantive in September). Most of her patients were Australian veterans of the New Guinea campaigns. At the end of the war she received and cared for recently liberated Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese. Matron of the 112th Military Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane, from October 1945, she also held the position of principal matron, headquarters, Northern Command, from June 1946. She transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 23 January 1947.

In February 1947 Hanrahan was appointed the first matron at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne. For the next twenty-two years Matron `Billie’ Hanrahan helped to nurse many ex-servicemen and women and care for their families. Her own war experience gave her a deep and personal insight into the sacrifices that Australian servicemen and women had made during the war, and she knew that their suffering did not necessarily end with the cessation of hostilities.

Hanrahan’s philosophy of nursing was simple: `A nurse has to give a lot to her patients. And a kind nurse is a good nurse—she doesn’t become hardened by her experiences’. Committed to keeping alive the memory of AANS nurses who had died during the war, she was often seen walking in the hospital’s memorial rose garden, which was dedicated to them. On special occasions she picked the roses and gave them to staff members to remind them that they were `part of a venerable profession’. When she retired in May 1969, she stressed the continuing need `for nurses at the Repat to care for the “boys” ‘. In 1963 she had been appointed OBE. She died on 17 August 1981 at Southport, Queensland, and was buried with Catholic rites in its lawn cemetery. One of many published tributes to her observed: `She was loved and respected by patients and staff alike’.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Goodman, Queensland Nurses (1985)
  • R. Goodman, Our War Nurses (1988)
  • G. Hunter-Payne, Proper Care (1994)
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 May 1969, p 18
  • UNA, Aug 1969, p 2
  • series B883, item QX6107 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Rosalind Hearder, 'Hanrahan, Ethel Frances (1909–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 May, 1909
Longreach, Queensland, Australia


17 August, 1981 (aged 72)
Southport, Queensland, Australia

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.