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Shedding light on nursing history

Nurses can be found depicted or memorialised in a number of stained glass windows in all of these settings across Australia.

Most people associate stained glass with religious buildings; it forms an integral part of our churches but it can also be found in some of our hospitals and in our national war memorial in Canberra.

What many people aren’t aware of is that nurses can be found depicted or memorialised in a number of stained glass windows in all of these settings across Australia. The University of Queensland doctoral candidate Susan Kellett is currently researching these representations of nurses in the stained glass windows of Australian public buildings.

The windows Kellett has found so far suggest that windows depicting nurses started to emerge in churches after World War I. Common images to be found include Florence Nightingale and nurses of the Australian Imperial Force (as shown from St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane) and British nurse-martyr Edith Cavell.

World War II added another group of nurses to be memorialised, Australian missionary nurses executed by the Japanese in New Guinea along with their Anglican colleagues and known collectively as the New Guinea Martyrs. Windows commemorating nurses can sometimes be found in hospitals, either as part of a chapel or as a decorative feature.

They may show or memorialise a nurse that worked or trained at that hospital. Perhaps the best known window containing a nurse is at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. She stands amid fourteen of her male colleagues from WWI in eternal vigil over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

This research aims to highlight a little known area of Australia’s nursing history. The commemoration and memorialisation of nurses has been touched upon by some researchers in the past two decades, most notably Ken Inglis in his work on Australian war memorials. However, scant literature exists that addresses it within the context of stained glass.

This study will not only identify where and how nurses are rendered in this medium but what this tells us about the value society places on nurses through their depiction in stained glass.

Kellett is still searching for windows. If you know of a window commemorating or memorialising a nurse, please contact her with your name and the location of the window via: [email protected] or 07 3346 5269.

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