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Lucy Osburn (1836–1891)

by John Griffith

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Lucy Osburn (1836-1891), hospital nurse, was born on 1 April 1836 at Leeds, England, daughter of William Osburn, Egyptologist, and his wife Ann, née Rimington. She was well educated and 'mistress of several languages'. About 1857 she visited a cousin in the Middle East where her 'best loved occupation was breaking-in Arab horses on the Syrian plains'. Interested in nursing from childhood, she worked four months in the Kaiserswerth Hospital, Dusseldorf, and visited hospitals in Holland and Vienna. In 1866, against her family's wishes, she attended the Nightingale Training School attached to St Thomas's Hospital and worked in both men's and women's surgical, medical and accident wards. She left on 29 September 1867 and for three months studied midwifery at King's College Hospital.

After Henry Parkes appealed to Florence Nightingale for trained nurses for the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, Lucy was appointed lady superintendent at a salary of £150, and with five trained sisters including Haldane Turriff arrived in Sydney on 5 March 1868. Far from robust, she had an indomitable will and courage. Dark, pretty and slim, she enchanted Parkes by her 'bright ingenuous manner'. Within a week she was called on to supervise the nursing of the wounded Duke of Edinburgh.

At the infirmary Miss Osburn's promised new quarters had not been started; the buildings were crumbling, verminous and malodorous from sewers running under them and the kitchens 'thick with grease'. She was opposed by the doctors and frustrated by the board, and from 26 April to 17 May ill with dysentery, but she made light of her difficulties in letters to Miss Nightingale.

By December Miss Osburn had trained sixteen nurses but made no headway with the house committee on the vermin problem. Desperately lonely, she wrote to Parkes 'I cannot tell what a relief I find in a little refined society'. Continually obstructed by the visiting surgeon, Alfred Roberts, she was attacked in the Legislative Assembly by David Buchanan in 1870, abetted by the house committee. For worshipping at Christ Church St Laurence she was pilloried by the Protestant Standard and accused of bible-burning, but a subcommittee appointed by the directors cleared her. She was also plagued by the love affairs of her sisters, and some of them wanted her place.

In December, against advice, Miss Osburn agreed to remain at the infirmary subject to three months' notice on either side. In the 1873 royal commission on public charities Roberts claimed that Miss Nightingale had accused Lucy of 'having views of her own … beyond the Nightingale system'. Miss Osburn sought help from Parkes who wrote to Miss Nightingale, expressing his 'entire confidence' in the lady superintendent. In its first report the commission under W. C. Windeyer dealt with the Sydney Infirmary and roundly condemned the 'horrible' operating room, the stench and vermin and accused the committee of management of 'utter neglect' and 'interfering between the head of the nursing establishment and her nurses'. Miss Osburn was completely vindicated and the commission praised 'the vast improvement' in the nursing.

From 1874 matters improved slowly. Miss Osburn's salary had been raised to £250 in 1873 and in all her troubles she had the unfailing support of Parkes and Lady Belmore. She became friends with the Macarthur and Windeyer families and with Lady Robinson and her daughters. In 1881 the Sydney Hospital Act abolished the infirmary's old name and set up new conditions of management.

In 1884 Miss Osburn resigned. Under intolerable conditions she had successfully established trained nursing on Nightingale principles in New South Wales. She returned to London and in 1886-88 worked as a district nurse among the sick poor in Bloomsbury and then became superintendent to the Southwark, Newington and Walworth District Nursing Association. In 1891 she visited her sister Ann's boarding school, Dunorlan, in Harrogate, where she died of diabetes on 22 December. Her estate in New South Wales was sworn for probate at £5553; she left £100 to Lucy, daughter of W. C. Windeyer.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Watson, History of the Sydney Hospital 1811-1911 (Syd, 1911)
  • Z. Cope, Six Disciples of Florence Nightingale (Lond, 1961)
  • D. G. Bowd, Lucy Osburn (Windsor, 1968)
  • F. MacDonnell, Miss Nightingale's Young Ladies (Syd, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870, 2, 550, 1870-71, 1, 95, 108, 4, 129, 1873-74, 6, 32, 241, 257, 1882, 2, 1186
  • S. Pines, ‘The first Australian hospital’, International Nursing Review, 7 (1932)
  • E. P. Evans, ‘Nursing in Australia’, International Nursing Review, 12 (1936)
  • M. P. Susman, ‘Lucy Osburn and her five Nightingale nurses’, Medical Journal of Australia, 1 May 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Mar 1868, 19 Sept 1873
  • Times (London), 25 Dec 1891
  • Nightingale papers (British Library)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Griffith, 'Osburn, Lucy (1836–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 April, 1836
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


22 December, 1891 (aged 55)
Harrogate, Yorkshire, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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