Woman Abbott, Gertrude

Hospital founder

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Gertrude Abbott was born Mary Jane O'Brien, in 1846 in Sydney, the daughter of school teacher, Thomas O'Brien and his wife, Rebecca. She spent most of her childhood in South Australia where, in 1868, she was one of the first women to join the Sisters of St Joseph. Four years later she left following turmoil in the order and, taking the name of Mrs Gertrude, or Mother, Abbott she and three other former sisters followed Josephite co-founder Father Julian Tenison Woods to Sydney where they attempted to start a contemplative order, supporting themselves by taking in needlework. Using an inheritance from Woods, she established St Margaret's, a non-denominational maternity home in 1893, and for the next 30 years was involved in its management, initially as president and later as matron.

Abbott ran the home, which later expanded into a women's hospital, as a quasi-religious community, funded from nurse trainee and patient fees, government subsidies and an art union lottery. In her appeals for donations she claimed that she had never let the hospital fall into debt (Queanbeyan Age and Queanbeyan Observer, 11 April 1922). Her leadership style has been described as 'never authoritarian, but competent' (Press 2009, 35). She exercised authority, but always within the bounds set by church and government, working alongside a board of management but being prepared to resist plans which she felt took the hospital beyond its original purpose (Press 2000, 19).

Abbott withdrew from active management of the hospital in 1926 following the death of her colleague, Sister Magdalen Foley, and died there in 1934. On her death the hospital passed to the management of the Sisters of St Joseph, an arrangement she had concluded ten years before.

Published Resources


  • Press, Margaret, Three Women of Faith: Gertrude Abbott, Elizabeth Anstice Baker and Mary Tenison Woods, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 2000. Details

Journal Articles

  • Press, Margaret, 'Some women in the Australian church', Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, vol. 30, 2009, pp. 33-38. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources