Jane Bell

Jane Bell (1873-1959), hospital matron, was born on 16 March 1873 at Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, daughter of Helen (born Johnstone) and William Bell, farmer. Before she was thirteen both parents and four siblings had died of tuberculosis. Helped by their local Presbyterian church, Jane and her surviving two sisters and brother emigrated to Sydney in 1886. The sternly Cameronian background of Dumfriesshire (where the most treasured historical traditions were the stories of the persecutions), and Jane Bell's own personal tragedy, moulded her determination to fight for the less privileged.

She trained at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and went to Queensland in 1903 as matron to the Bundaberg Hospital, and in 1904 to Brisbane General Hospital. Miss Bell went to London in 1906 to undertake midwifery training at Queen Charlotte's Hospital and in the following year was appointed senior assistant lady superintendent of nursing at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. She returned to Australia to take up appointment as lady superintendent at the Melbourne Hospital (1910-34).

On the outbreak of war she was appointed principal matron of the First Australian General Hospital. Her conflicts with the Army Medical Service in Egypt over nurse staffing control foretold her future struggle to advance the status of the nursing profession. When her recommendations were rejected she asked to be returned to Australia, and in October 1915 recommenced duty at the Melbourne Hospital. An inquiry into the administration of the Australian General Hospital vindicated her stand and paved the way for reorganisation of the Australian Army Medical and Nursing Services in 1916.

Miss Bell combined unrelenting discipline, cleanliness and rigorous nurse training with fairness and kindness. She overcame hospital management obstruction, to introduce many reforms to nurses' conditions and training. The appointment of a tutor sister to instruct trainees in 1920, and the introduction of a six-week preliminary training school in 1927, were two of her most notable achievements. Her responsibilities included the hospital's domestic staff and she showed great enterprise in alleviating their poor conditions and pay, caused by hospital financial constraints and a lack of industrial guidelines.

As a relative of the famous Thomas Carlyle, yet deprived of all but a basic schooling, Miss Bell placed great emphasis on education. To realise her dream of giving nursing a professional status, she devoted many years to restructuring nurse organisations and updating qualifications. She was a foundation member in 1899 of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association, a member from 1910 of the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses' Association (later Royal Victorian College of Nursing) and the Nurses' Board from 1924-50. While president of the College of Nursing (1931-34, 1935-46), she assisted in setting up the College's postgraduate training courses (1934).

Efforts to change the lingering nineteenth century perception of the nurse as the 'Lady with the Lamp' remained Miss Bell's greatest challenge. She waged a continual battle for uniform conditions and salaries, but objected to the sole emphasis placed on industrial relations by nurse organisations in the 1930s. Her most significant achievement was in persuading contemporaries that all aspects of nursing - training, education, conditions and remuneration - were equally important. Several of her recommendations for the future organisation of the nursing profession, which formed the basis of her evidence to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Joint Committee on Social Security in 1944, were ultimately adopted.

Miss Bell was appointed OBE in 1944. She died at Royal Melbourne Hospital on 6 August 1959.

Jennifer Williams

Jennifer A. Williams and Rupert D. Goodman Jane Bell, OBE, (1873- 1959), Lady Superintendent, The Royal Melbourne Hospital 1910-1934 1988.