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An idea born from tragedy

Now in its 62nd year, the Nurses Memorial Centre in Victoria is an important steward of Australia’s nursing history. By Linda Belardi.

During a lengthy and arduous imprisonment in Japanese prisoner of war camps during WWII, an idea germinated that would help build the modern nursing profession in Australia.

Having experienced the significant loss of young Australian nurses, including 21 who were brutally massacred on Banka Island off the east coast of Sumatra, surviving Australian army nurses, including Vivian Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey resolved to set up a living memorial for their fallen comrades.

The idea proved to be more powerful than they could have ever imagined. It became the seed for their survival and helped mobilise a profession.

Upon their return to Australia at the end of the war, Jeffrey and Bullwinkel spent two years travelling around Victoria raising funds and public donations to establish the new centre. “When we returned to civilization, it was still an idea only,” Bullwinkel later wrote of the events.

Set up in an old Victorian mansion on St Kilda Road, Melbourne, in May 1949, the Nurses Memorial Centre became a permanent ‘living’ memorial to the heroism and sacrifice of those WWII Australian nurses. Betty Jeffrey became the centre’s first administrator until poor health forced her to retire in 1954.

“In the post-war years, the nursing profession was stirring and becoming restless. The Nurses Memorial Centre gave them cohesion and an identity that had been lacking,” wrote Bullwinkel. The nurses at the time also believed in establishing nursing as a closely integrated hub to improve the knowledge and skill of the profession. Around the same time, the Royal College of Nursing, Australia was set up to provide education for nurses, as well as the former nurses board of Victoria and what is now the Australian Nursing Federation. The site in St Kilda Rd became the focal point for the growth of professional nursing organisations.

A club was also set up in one of the classrooms which was renowned for its acoustics and in February 1958, attracted the likes of American singer Buddy Holly who performed at the centre on one of his trips to Australia.

Now, 62 years later, Christine Smith occupies the role formerly held by Jeffrey. Today, to fulfill its original goals of being a living memorial, the centre supports nurses primarily through education opportunities to advance their skills and practice through the award of scholarships.

In its new incarnation, the centre administers five scholarships, predominately for Victorian nurses to access postgraduate education. These include the Betty Jeffrey and Vivian Bullwinkel awards, Australian Legion Scholarships for postgraduate study in aged and palliative care and the Prince Henry’s Affiliates Scholarship in acute care.

However, in 2010, for the first time, a national three-year scholarship was offered to support nurses to pursue a research doctorate. The “Babe Norman” Scholarship, worth $90,000 was set up by the Rosemary Norman Foundation and honours the memory of her father, Reginald Havill “Babe” Norman, who served in both world wars. Norman’s only daughter, Rosemary, became a nurse, and during his military career he developed many close friendships with Australian nurses including Matron Grace Wilson and Vivian Bullwinkel.

Smith says by contributing to the professionalism and future careers of nurses the legacy lives on. “The surviving nurses wanted to create a living memorial for their colleagues who died.”

Bullwinkel, who later became the president of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia, in the early 1970s was also a strong advocate for advancing the professional status of nursing and became a champion for moving education into universities.

After World War II, nurses memorial centres sprung up in most other states around Australia but over the years have faded in comparison to the Victorian organisation which remains, along with its WA counterpart, the most active. But the St Kilda Road office is the only one to retain a physical presence. Recorded histories of these other organisations have been difficult to locate and Smith says she has tried without success to search out nurses with information about how these other centres operated.

Continuing its strong tradition of remembrance, on May 17, the Nurses Memorial Centre will host a reception to recognise the 70th anniversary of the massacre on Bangka Island with an address from Ian Shaw, the author of the 2010 book On Radji Beach.

Dignitaries including the US consul-general and the British counsul-general have been invited to commemorate the anniversary.

Every year for more than 20 years, the centre has also held a commemorative service on the Sunday before ANZAC day to pay tribute to the nurses who died or were injured in peacekeeping duties and wartime service.

In recent years, some 55 nursing and women’s organizations have come to lay a wreath in a ceremony. The Nurses Memorial Centre has also actively tried to involve local schools in the event to strengthen ties with young Victorians.

The centre, which also hosts the annual Vivian Bullwinkel Lecture, says it is important to increase the amount of history taught to student nurses at an undergraduate level. “There is very little history taught in undergraduate nursing programs these days, despite having a very rich history of nursing in Australia, which I think is a real shame.

“As a novice nurse, if you don’t know anything about the history of nursing then it all takes place in a bit of a vacuum,” Smith says.

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