Woman Bell, Jane (1873 - 1959)


16 March 1873
Dumfriesshire, Scottland
6 August 1959

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Jane Bell was born in Scotland in 1873, the daughter of farmer, William Bell and his wife Helen. Following the death of her parents and four of their children she migrated to New South Wales with her remaining siblings in 1886. After spending her adolescence in service in doctors' homes she undertook her training as a nurse at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, graduating in 1894. She later moved to Queensland where she was appointed Matron first at the Bundaberg Hospital in 1903 and then at Brisbane General in 1904. After further training in England from 1906 to 1910 she was appointed lady superintendent at the Melbourne Hospital, a position she would occupy until 1934.

In 1913 Bell replaced Elizabeth Glover as lady superintendent of the nurses attached to the Third Military District, and was responsible for the selection of nurses to accompany the troops when war broke out in the following year. She left for Egypt in December 1914 but struggled to have her authority recognised by military authorities and was recalled in August 1915. An inquiry, however, vindicated her position and saw her recommendations as to the place of nurses in the army introduced. She returned to her position at the Melbourne Hospital where she is credited with introducing changes which improved the status and remuneration of nurses.

Bell was a foundation member of the NSW based Australasian Trained Nurses' Association in 1899 and joined its Victorian equivalent in 1910. She served two terms as president and was a member of the Nurses' Board from 1924 to 1950. A fierce defender of the Florence Nightingale tradition, Bell fought for nurses to be seen as trained professionals, calling for the introduction of centralised training overseen by the University, with trainees given the status of students rather than employees (Argus, 1 November 1944). She was also influential in the introduction of postgraduate education. At the same time she resisted plans to introduce 'nurse assistants' arguing that nurses should continue to 'make beds and have all the handling of patients' (Cairns Post, 20 November 1941).

On her retirement, Bell paid tribute to the many nurses whose training she had overseen. Referring to them as her 'professional children' she said 'I could have done nothing if you had not brought to this work your own ideals' (Argus, 25 June 1934). She remained active on professional bodies and travelled internationally often reporting back to government on the state of nursing in the countries which she visited. In 1937 she represented the Royal Australian Nursing Federation at the International Council of Nurses in London, addressing the gathering on behalf of Australia. Freed of the need to answer to hospital management she became more forthright in arguing for better conditions for nurses, accepting the value of unionisation but arguing that the economic could not be considered in isolation from the educational and cultural elements of the profession (Williams and Goodman, p. 151).

Bell was described as 'a unique figure in the nursing life of this country ... a stern disciplinarian, a remarkably efficient administrator, and a woman of considerable intellectual ability ... who inspired easy affection among those for whose welfare she was responsible' (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 1934). Appointed OBE in 1944, she died in 1959.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia

  • Biographical cuttings on Jane Bell, Matron at the Royal Melbourne Hospital from 1910-1934, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals, 1910 - 1934, 1810701; National Library of Australia. Details

Published Resources


  • Williams, Jennifer & Goodman, Rupert, Miss Jane Bell OBE (1873-1959) Lady Superintendent, the Royal Melbourne Hospital (1910-1934), Spectrum Publications for The Royal Melbourne Hospital Graduate Nurses’ Association, Melbourne, Victoria, 1988. Details

Online Resources