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Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie (1887–1972)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published:

Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie (1887-1972), hospital matron and army nurse, was born on 3 June 1887 at Homebush, Sydney, second daughter of Scottish-born David Kirkcaldie and his English wife Alice Angela, née Mountain. She entered Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, as a probationer in March 1910, gained her nurse's certificate in March 1914 and won the Sir Alfred Roberts medal. With the outbreak of World War I, she resigned on 21 August to join the Grantala, the hospital ship accompanying the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to German New Guinea.

Kirkcaldie returned to Sydney with the Grantala in December. Impatient to enlist, she went to England and in May 1915 joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. In mid-May she began work at the Hospital of the Knights of St John, Valetta, Malta. Casualties from Gallipoli, many of them Australians, were pouring in. 'So many were brave beyond belief', she recalled in a narrative of her war experiences. In October she volunteered for duty on hospital ships, joining the Panama which was taking wounded from Malta to England. In November it went to Gallipoli to evacuate wounded and Kirkcaldie recorded: 'They came to us straight from the trenches, their muddy, filthy clothing frozen on them. They were famished, gaunt, and weary, and suffering intolerable pain'. Her sympathy was mingled with anger: many frostbitten limbs were gangrenous and required immediate amputation. In mid-February 1916 the Panama was ordered to England to transport wounded across the Channel and after the battle of the Somme began in July its nursing staff suffered 'continuous and intense' strain.

In the autumn Rosa Kirkcaldie was transferred to the 8th General Hospital at Rouen, France; in March 1917 she was posted first to the 5th Stationary Hospital, Abbeville, then to the 8th Casualty Clearing Station at Arras. On 9 April, during the Arras offensive, Kirkcaldie and her colleagues 'commenced to know work as we had never known it, and to face sights the tragedy of which no words can tell'. For the next few days the C.C.S. was filled with the remnants of the splendid Scottish regiments she had seen marching up to the front only days before. In May she received three weeks leave in England — her first leave in two years. She was then posted briefly to the 10th Stationary Hospital at St Omer, France, and to the 6th C.C.S. at Barlin. Here, in July 1917, she first saw 'the deadly effects of poison gas'. After only a few weeks there she was recalled to England and reprimanded for returning to France without the prescribed medical examinations. She worked in military hospitals in Lancashire and at Warrington but when her contract ended in November she resigned. For her service she received the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Medal.

Back in Sydney by early 1918, Kirkcaldie was acting assistant matron at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1918-19 and then became matron of Canonbury Hospital. Her book, In Gray and Scarlet, written with clarity and sensitivity, was published in 1922. From 1922 she was secretary of the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association, but resigned in 1924 to become the 'very celebrated' matron of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Camperdown. In 1979 the hospital's historian wrote: 'she was one of the Hospital's greatest matrons, intelligent, competent, making great demands of herself and expecting those under her to do their best'. A 'high-minded idealist', she was generous, sensitive and inspired firm loyalties. In 1932-33 she was president of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association and in 1935 was appointed C.B.E. The hospital's new nurses' home, completed in 1941, was later named Kirkcaldie House. She resigned her matronship in July 1945.

Kirkcaldie died, unmarried, on 4 August 1972 at Collaroy and was privately cremated. Most of her estate, sworn for probate at $56,969, was left to her sisters and ultimately to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. Part of this bequest funds the R. A. Kirkcaldie medal awarded annually to the most promising trainee. Petite, with delicate features but great stamina, Rosa Kirkcaldie was a gracious, courageous woman totally dedicated to her profession. Her portrait, by Norman Carter, hangs in Kirkcaldie House. Her elder sister, Katherine Vida Kirkcaldie, served abroad with the Australian Army Nursing Service in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vol 3 (Canb, 1943)
  • D. M. Armstrong, The First Fifty Years: A History of Nursing at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney from 1882 to 1932 (Syd, 1965)
  • D. G. Hamilton, Hand in Hand (Syd, 1979)
  • Australasian Nurses' Journal, July 1923, Aug 1935, Aug 1945
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Aug 1972
  • nursing registers and records(Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney, and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney)
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Kirkcaldie, Rosa Angela (1887–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 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

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