Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Ann Nicolay (1850–1939)

by Michal Bosworth

This article was published:

Mary Ann Nicolay (1850-1939), Nightingale nurse and hospital matron, was born on 2 August 1850, probably at Chelsea, London, fifth of eight children of Rev. Charles Grenfell Nicolay, sometime librarian of King's College Hospital (which had a nursing school), and his wife Mary Ann, née Raven. Educated at Clifton High School, Bristol, young Mary Ann became a pupil-teacher. She joined the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas's Hospital, London, on 13 March 1876, later recalling long days, cleaning as well as nursing, and writing notes for checking by Miss Nightingale. She left in March 1877 for the National Nursing Association, with 'good' to 'moderate' assessments—except for her truthfulness, which was 'unreliable'.

In 1878 Mary Ann, her mother and siblings joined her father in Western Australia. After about a year she went back to Britain, where she possibly worked in a hospital at Newport, Monmouth. Returning to Western Australia about 1888, she stayed with her widowed father at Fremantle. In 1890 she was appointed matron at Perth Colonial Hospital. She resigned after six months but stayed in office for the rest of the year. From 1891 Nicolay undertook private nursing. Her professional care was not cheap: ten guineas a month for midwifery cases, one guinea a day to nurse patients who had survived a major operation. By 1897 she was running a private hospital in North Perth. Although the main beneficiary of her father's will, she was never wealthy.

In March 1900, sponsored by the public, Sister Nicolay conducted ten nurses to the South African War in the steamer Salamis, despite criticism for taking scarce, trained personnel from local hospitals. Some of the group found their way into South African hospitals, but Nicolay returned to Western Australia; next year she was employed again at Perth hospital. From February 1902 she was inspecting and relieving matron, Perth, a post that also involved travel to government hospitals as far distant as Broome and Albany. She retired in 1917 but returned to Perth Hospital in 1919 during the influenza epidemic. In 1921 she was awarded honorary life membership of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association; she was also a member of the Royal British Nursing Association.

Nicolay was credited with establishing a training regime for probationers and remembered as a disciplinarian. She brought modern nursing ideals to Western Australia and exerted a moral influence over the profession by her often-advertised links with the heroine Nightingale. She was also a strict Anglican churchwoman, as was her friend Jane Isabella Gill, matron of Perth Hospital to 1928, whom she visited every week to take lunch with in the nurses' dining room. In 1935, opening the Preliminary Training School for Nurses in Murray Street, she dedicated a grandfather clock to Gill's memory.

A short, plump and cheerful public figure, Nicolay always wore the blue, outdoor uniform of a Nightingale nurse, including bonnet with ribbons tied under her chin, and a belt that was said to be fastened with a St Thomas's buckle. She travelled twice weekly from her rooms in Subiaco to the Literary Institute to keep up with current publications. In April 1936 she spoke at the opening of the Florence Nightingale Club. Next year she was awarded the Coronation medal. She published several accounts embellishing her legend, including reminiscences in the Magazine (April 1930). Miss Nicolay died on 15 October 1939 in (Royal) Perth Hospital and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Popham (ed), Reflections (Perth, 1978)
  • G. C. Bolton and P. Joske, History of Royal Perth Hospital (Perth, 1982)
  • V. Bullough et al (eds), Florence Nightingale and Her Era (NY, 1990)
  • J. Bassett, Guns & Brooches (Melb, 1992)
  • Journal of the West Australian Nurses, 19 May 1936, p 14, 17 Oct 1939, p 13
  • West Australian Church News, Nov 1939, p 6
  • Royal Perth Hospital Journal, Nov 1954, p 21, May 1955, p 93
  • F. M. Nicolay, A General History of Nursing in Perth, Western Australia (thesis, Graylands Teaching College, Perth, 1964)
  • Nightingale Training School records, H01/ST/NTS/C/1/2 (London Metropolitan Archives)
  • F. G. Nicolay diaries and reminiscences (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Michal Bosworth, 'Nicolay, Mary Ann (1850–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 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]


2 August, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


15 October, 1939 (aged 89)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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