Lucy Osburn

Lucy Osburn (1835-1891), nurse, was born on 10 May 1835 at Leeds, England, daughter of Ann (born Rimington) and William Osburn, egyptologist. She was well educated and had practical nursing and visiting experience in hospitals from Jerusalem to Kaiserswerth, Dusseldorf. She attended the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas's Hospital, London, in 1866-67.

Following an appeal by the New South Wales Colonial Secretary, Henry Parkes, to Florence Nightingale, for trained nurses for the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, Lucy Osburn was appointed lady superintendent. She arrived with five sisters on 5 March 1868. The Infirmary's buildings were verminous; there was no plumbing; the quality of patient care was inimical to health; the promised new residence (Nightingale Wing) had not been finished.

Miss Osburn's administrative, political and social skills were of a high order but she did not have a conciliatory disposition towards inferiors who disagreed with her. Her capacity to win and keep powerful friends caused resentment within a hospital board not noted for competence, riven by sectarian disputes, and unfamiliar with the concept of professional nursing. Some doctors and board members interfered with ward management and nurse discipline. The responsibilities of manager and lady superintendent were ill-defined, the latter having no control over domestic staff and stores. The English sisters proved fractious and insubordinate and only one was to survive the expiry of their contracts in December 1870.

A royal commission into public charities (1873-74) chaired by William Windeyer paid special attention to the chaos at the Infirmary, which had become notorious. Lucy Osburn had been consulted about the appointment of the commission and was the only official to emerge from its enquiries with honour.

Alarmed by conflicting reports during the first three years and disappointed by the dispersal of the Nightingale Fund sponsored team - the first ever sent abroad - Florence Nightingale had lost confidence in Miss Osburn. Dr Alfred Roberts became aware of this during a visit to Miss Nightingale in London in 1873 and used his privileged information to justify a public accusation that Miss Osburn (an old enemy) had departed from Nightingale principles. Both Parkes and Windeyer wrote privately to Miss Nightingale, discrediting Roberts and warmly testifying to Miss Osburn's success under adverse conditions. Although this did not restore Lucy to Miss Nightingale's favour, Nightingale training was secure in Australia. Miss Osburn's nurses were to filter throughout the Australian colonies and even to London, where the matronship of Brompton Hospital fell in 1881 to Florence Abbott who proved a brilliant success.

The post of manager was abolished in 1875 and Miss Osburn's authority in the Infirmary was never seriously challenged thereafter. The Sydney Hospital Act of 1881 gave better administrative guidelines despite an increase in size for an already overlarge board. But the hospital remained difficult to work. Miss Osburn was not physically strong. She had missed a third of her St Thomas's training through illness and had come to Australia partly for health reasons. A series of minor administrative crises during 1883-84 caused a breakdown which led to her resignation in November 1884. She left in 1885 for London via the United States and later that year was inspecting hospitals in Berlin.

During 1886-90 Lucy Osburn was attached to the Metropolitan and National Nursing Association which supplied district nurses to the sick poor in London. In 1888 she was a foundation council member of the British Nursing Association. To her friend Lady Windeyer (q.v.) she wrote: 'the difficulty is to arrange things upon a sufficiently broad basis the doctors being determined to take the whole thing into their own hands which if they do they will wreck it'. She wrote also of returning to Australia but she never did. She died at Harrogate on the 22 December 1891.

Ann M Mitchell