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Elsie Jane Whicker (1899–1987)

by Vilma Page

This article was published:

Elsie Jane Whicker (1899-1987), bush-nursing superintendent, was born on 16 January 1899 at Hendon, England, daughter of John Henwood, joiner, and his wife Frances Ellen, née Jones. Elsie married Charles Edward Whicker on 6 October 1917 at St Mark’s parish church, Harlesden, Middlesex. They later moved to Sydney, where they divorced in 1926. Training as a nurse at the Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, Elsie qualified in 1932. She obtained her midwifery certificate in 1934, then undertook further training in London. Back in New South Wales, she went to Tamworth Base Hospital as a sister tutor in 1936. After World War II she served at Cootamundra Hospital.

Joining the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association in 1948, Sister Whicker was stationed at Tallimba. Her duties included public-health work such as immunisation and providing help with emergencies, accidents, illness and births. Her role also encompassed health education for parents and schoolchildren. All forms of transport, including helicopters, were used to reach the patient as the nurse’s work was carried out—in Whicker’s words—in ‘our great open spaces’. Nurses’ homes were used for basic nursing but in later years Whicker also assumed some responsibility at the Country Women’s Association hospital. The superintendent’s reports noted that at times she did not have a day off for several months; night calls were part of the job.

In 1953 Miss Whicker, as she was known, was appointed superintendent of the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association, to oversee from head office in Sydney the thirty-one centres then in operation. She now visited, inspected and organised all of them, despite the challenge of travelling long distances and the hazards caused by bad weather. Problems such as a shortage of nurses, the difficulty in obtaining cottages, and rising costs became her responsibility. She wrote frequently to her nurses, encouraging, paying tributes for energy, enthusiasm and achievement, and expressing gratitude for loyalty. Letters back from her nurses were expansive, reporting on a new garden, a local dance, a fancy-dress ball for children. Whicker understood the isolation of their lives but felt that some nurses enjoyed the resulting autonomy.

A member of the Royal College of Nursing, London, Whicker was interested in wider aspects of her field. In 1955 she represented the association at the International Nursing Congress in Melbourne. She attended the Pan-Pacific Rehabilitation Conference in Sydney in 1958. The next year Whicker took a few months long service leave, during which she observed public-health arrangements, attended medical conferences in England and Scandinavia and spent three weeks with the frontier nursing service in Canada. She was appointed MBE in 1960.

During the golden jubilee of the BNA in 1961 Whicker acknowledged the technical developments that had occurred but emphasised that ‘our patients (who are still human) are needing our understanding and compassion more than ever before’. In 1964 she retired as superintendent. She continued to live at Ryde, Sydney. Childless, she died on 24 January 1987 at Eastwood and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • NSW Bush Nursing Association, Annual Report, 1960-61, 1963-64
  • Australian Nurses’ Journal, vol 51, no 3, 1953, p 60
  • Australian Bush Nursing Journal, vol 3, no 2, 1958, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 1956, p 5, 18 June 1959, p 7
  • Sun (Sydney), 17 June 1959, p 53
  • records of NSW Bush Nursing Association (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Vilma Page, 'Whicker, Elsie Jane (1899–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Henwood, Elsie Jane

16 January, 1899
Hendon, England


24 January, 1987 (aged 88)
Eastwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.