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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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White, Jessie McHardy (1870–1957)

by Perditta M. McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Jessie McHardy White (1870-1957), by unknown photographer, 1906-19

Jessie McHardy White (1870-1957), by unknown photographer, 1906-19

Australian War Memorial, H15254 [detail]

Jessie McHardy White (1870-1957), army principal matron, was born on 24 July 1870 at Yarra Flats, near Healesville, Victoria, fifth surviving child of John Williamson, farmer, and his wife Mary, née McHardy, both Scottish born. On 21 December 1893 at Scots Church, Melbourne, Jessie married with Presbyterian forms Thomas James White, a book-keeper of Fitzroy; they were to remain childless. Following her husband's death in 1896, Mrs White took up nursing. She completed her general training at the Alfred Hospital (December 1896 to February 1900) and her midwifery training at the Women's Hospital (February 1900 to March 1901). By 1906 she was running a private hospital in Melbourne and had joined the Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve.

In October 1914 Sister White embarked with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force, arriving in Egypt on 4 December. Attached to a British military hospital, she also served in a hospital ship and was briefly matron of the 1st Australian General Hospital. A reorganization of the Australian Army Medical Corps and the A.A.N.S. led to her appointment early in 1916 as principal matron of the A.I.F. in England. Following the arrival in London of Matron-in-Chief Evelyn Conyers, White embarked for Australia in August, having been awarded the Royal Red Cross (1st Class) for her services.

In response to a request from London in April 1917, it was decided to send Australian nurses to staff four British general hospitals at Salonica (Thessaloniki). Matron White resumed active service on 5 June as principal matron in charge of a contingent of 364 nurses, organized into units comprising one matron and ninety nurses for each hospital. She was also matron of No.1 Unit which arrived at Salonica on 30 July to take over a tent hospital with over 800 beds, located during summer at nearby Hortiach. The second and third units were soon in position, but all members of the fourth were not present until June 1918. While ministering to sick and wounded soldiers, she and her staff contended with poor living conditions, extremes of temperature, threats to their safety from marauders, and with flies, lice, malaria, dysentery and typhus.

Efficient and self-reliant, but isolated from administrative support, White was given additional powers to promote and repatriate nurses; meanwhile she steadfastly preserved her contingent's separate identity. Her severe treatment of one subordinate matron did not negate Matron White's essential humanity. Moved by the burial of a British nurse, she wrote: 'I was glad to have been there and felt that we had left the little one—she was only twenty-three—in safe keeping'. The principal matron spent her leisure hours enjoying the beauty of her natural surroundings.

Jessie White was appointed M.B.E., mentioned in dispatches, and awarded the Greek Medal for Military Merit and the Serbian Order of St Sava in recognition of her work at Salonica. She returned to Australia on 28 June 1919 and her A.I.F. appointment terminated on 7 August. Continuing her nursing career until late in life, she was active in the affairs of returned nurses and served for twenty-five years as president of the Salonica Sisters' Group. She died on 26 October 1957 at East Hawthorn, Melbourne, and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at £31,773.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1938, Canb, 1940, 1943)
  • Mufti, Dec 1957
  • Herald (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1916, 29 July 1919, 28 Oct 1957
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Perditta M. McCarthy, 'White, Jessie McHardy (1870–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Jessie McHardy White (1870-1957), by unknown photographer, 1906-19

Jessie McHardy White (1870-1957), by unknown photographer, 1906-19

Australian War Memorial, H15254 [detail]