Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Florence Elizabeth McMillan (1882–1943)

by Audrey Tate

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Florence McMillan, n.d.

Florence McMillan, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Florence Elizabeth McMillan (1882-1943), nursing sister, was born on 21 January 1882 at Burwood, Sydney, second child of (Sir) William McMillan, a merchant from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Ada Charlotte, née Graham. Her parents were divorced in 1891. On 29 August 1892 at Glasgow, Scotland, William married Helen Maria (1863-1937), the widowed daughter of Rev. William Gibson, a Wesleyan minister. Born on 5 March 1863 in England, Helen had been educated partly in France. She had married Archibald O'Reilly (d.1891) on 18 August 1885 in Paris and had accompanied him to Sydney where he practised medicine.

Recognized for her public spirit, sincerity and unselfish commitment to the 'cause of women and children', Helen McMillan had a profound influence on her step-daughter Elizabeth, with whom she had an exceptionally close relationship. Lady McMillan held office in many organizations, including the National Council of Women of New South Wales (president 1918-19), the Women's Club (president 1923-26), the women's auxiliary of Sydney Hospital, the State branch of the Girl Guides' Association, the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies, and the Victoria League. She was also a member of the Alliance Française and the State Children Relief Board. After Sir William's death (1926), she married with Presbyterian forms Andrew Watson Munro on 27 May 1930 at Dulwich Hill. Survived by the two daughters of her second marriage, she died on 29 October 1937 at Woollahra and was cremated.

Elizabeth attended Claremont College, Randwick. Between 1899 and 1902 she studied art in Paris, mainly at the Académie Julian. She also visited the United States of America and Ireland, and stayed in South Africa in 1906-07. Possibly prompted by her father's financial difficulties, she reacted against her years of 'relatively aimless activity' and began training as a nurse at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, in 1909. She was registered by the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association on 12 November 1913 and qualified as a sister in 1914.

Following the outbreak of World War I, McMillan was one of six nursing sisters who sailed in the hospital ship, Grantala, to support the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in German New Guinea. She transferred to the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force, in April 1915 and served with the 3rd Australian General Hospital on Lemnos during the Gallipoli Peninsula campaign. Her letters home contained graphic descriptions of the harrowing conditions she experienced. She wrote: 'I could weep hysterically now it is all over . . . I may write other letters, but not another about these first days. I shall try to forget them'. Her correspondence also revealed an affectionate, idealistic and devout disposition. Arriving in England in October 1916, she worked (1917-18) in Australian hospitals on the Western Front.

In London in 1919 McMillan attended lectures at the Babies of the Empire Society where she trained in (Sir) Truby King's 'Plunket Mothercraft Method' before returning to Australia where her A.A.N.S. appointment terminated that year. She completed her obstetrics certificate at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington. King then asked her to take charge of the New Zealand Plunket Society's main training school at Dunedin. In 1922 McMillan was back in Sydney, directing the Tresillian Mothercraft Training Centre which had been established by the Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies to train nurses for baby clinics.

A 'resolute and fixed determination (often called obstinacy) to carry out to the letter the teaching of . . . Truby King' found Sister McMillan at odds with Sydney physicians. She refused to resign and her dismissal in February 1923 caused 'something of a stir in medical and nursing circles'. As the result of a public meeting in March, the Australian Mothercraft Society was formed with the backing of her father and stepmother. Elizabeth became its director. A small, serious woman, with large brown eyes and dark hair, she had 'a quiet air of authority' and marked sincerity. She was devoted to her work, supervising nurses at Karitane (the society's training school at Coogee) and corresponding with country mothers.

At St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney, on 8 November 1929 Elizabeth married Dudley Percy Davidson, a Queensland Air Navigation Co. Ltd pilot who was fifteen years her junior. They lived in Brisbane. Dudley was killed on 31 December 1930 in an air crash at Maryborough. By 1934 Elizabeth had returned to Sydney to teach the Plunket mothercraft system. She died of an aortic aneurysm on 9 February 1943 at her Woollahra apartment and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. M. Gunnar, Good Iron Mac (Syd, 1995)
  • M. Sear, The National Council of Women of New South Wales (Syd, 1996)
  • Ladies Sphere, 20 July 1923
  • Herself, 17 Sept 1929
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 16 June 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Feb, 3 Mar 1923, 20 Oct 1925
  • Truth (Sydney), Dec 1925
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 1 Oct 1927
  • P. Gunnar, A Family Companion (typescript, privately held)
  • F. E. McMillan correspondence, 1914-16 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Audrey Tate, 'McMillan, Florence Elizabeth (1882–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Florence McMillan, n.d.

Florence McMillan, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Davidson, Elizabeth Elizabeth

21 January, 1882
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 February, 1943 (aged 61)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.