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Susan Bell McGahey (1862–1919)

by Sue Forsyth

This article was published:

Susan Bell McGahey (1862-1919), hospital matron and reformer, was born in 1862 at Stewartstown, County Tyrone, Ireland, one of six children of Robert McGahey, farmer, and his wife Annie. In the early 1870s the family moved to England. Susan trained in 1884-87 at London Hospital under Florence Nightingale's friend Eva Luckes. After completing her general training and obtaining an obstetric certificate, McGahey travelled to Sydney at the suggestion of a friend Charlotte Thomas, whose husband David established Manly Cottage Hospital.

Following a highly successful term as the first matron (1890-91) of Carrington Convalescent Hospital, Camden, in July 1891 McGahey was appointed matron at (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, specifically to reform the nursing department. Over the next thirteen years, McGahey made nurse training more rigorous and systematic, employed wardsmaids to take over the heavy cleaning previously done by probationers, appointed senior nurses to newly established administrative positions and founded the Prince Alfred Trained Nurses' Reunion. These reforms raised the status of nursing at the hospital and brought McGahey international acclaim.

More contentious was McGahey's introduction of a fourth, postgraduate year for nurses, the first of its kind in Australia, and her proposal that a preliminary training school be established at R.P.A.H. The powerful chairman of the board Professor (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart dismantled the first and refused approval for the second. He later argued that these changes, while of benefit to nurses, disadvantaged the hospital. Following months of difficult negotiations McGahey resigned, citing ill health. She left the hospital in January 1904 and opened a small private hospital, Charlemount, at Potts Point, as a training school for nurses, which she operated for the next decade.

McGahey's interest in reforming nursing had made her one of the most prominent matrons in New South Wales. She corresponded with Ethel Bedford Fenwick and Isla Stewart, leaders of the movement to professionalize nursing in Britain, and was elected an honorary member of the Matrons' Council of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1899 she helped to found the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association, the voluntary self-regulatory organization that set uniform standards for training and registered trained nurses and training hospitals until state registration in 1924. McGahey held the most senior nursing position in the A.T.N.A., that of founding honorary secretary; she was a member of its council until 1912 and founding editor of its journal, the Australasian Nurses' Journal. She represented the association at the first International Council of Nurses Congress at Buffalo, United States of America, in 1901.

In 1904 McGahey was elected president of the I.C.N., in recognition of her achievements. When enthusiastically accepting the presidency, she made no mention of the ill health referred to when she resigned from R.P.A.H. On the contrary, she looked forward to taking an active interest in nursing reform. Lacking an official position in a leading hospital, however, and located so far from the U.S.A. and Britain, she was ineffective as president of the I.C.N. She attended no meetings, nor, as far as is known, did she make any recommendations.

McGahey did not marry. She died of cancer on 16 November 1919 and was buried in the Church of England Cemetery, Carlingford. In 1922 a memorial tablet to her was unveiled and a yearly prize inaugurated in her name at R.P.A.H.

Select Bibliography

  • Prince Alfred Hospital, Annual Report, 1891-1904
  • Australasian Nurses’ Journal, Jan 1904, p 132, 15 Dec 1919, p 407, 15 Jan 1923, p 11
  • Nursing Record & Hospital World, 21 Aug 1901, p 147
  • Prince Alfred Hospital Gazette, 24 Sept 1904, 30 Mar 1904
  • Royal London Hospital, Register of Probationers, no 2, 1884-1888 (London Hospital archives)
  • Prince Alfred Hospital, Board of Directors reports, 1891-1904 and Matron’s reports to the House Committee, 1893-1904 (Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Archives)
  • Australasian Trained Nurses’ Association, council meetings and records, 1899-1923 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • International Council of Nurses, minutes and records, 1899-1909 (International Council of Nurses Archives, Geneva).

Citation details

Sue Forsyth, 'McGahey, Susan Bell (1862–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Stewartstown, Tyrone, Ireland


16 November, 1919 (aged ~ 57)
Carlingford, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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