Woman Lyons, Margaret Anne (Gretta) (1869 - 1923)

Kyneton, Victoria, Australia
November 1923
East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Nurse, Private hospital owner and Trade unionist

Written by Madonna Grehan, The University of Melbourne

Active in nursing's professional and political sphere for twenty-five years, Gretta Lyons' advocacy for rank and file nurses challenged Victorian nursing's establishment: the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses Association (RVTNA), an organisation run by senior nurses, doctors and businessmen. Lyons' untimely death meant that the aspirations she held for nursing took time to eventuate. But her resolute leadership forced lasting change, culminating in the foundation of the Australian Nursing Federation, a new national organisation established specifically to deal with nursing's industrial concerns.

Margaret Anne Lyons, known as Gretta, was born in 1869, at Kyneton, Victoria, the second of seven children to Martin Lyons JP, a native of County Clare in Ireland, and Mary Elizabeth Moylan. Her father was active in local politics, as a Shire Councillor in the Heathcote area of central Victoria, a District Returning Officer for elections, and a founder of the Heathcote Agricultural Society. Martin Lyons had a reputation for speaking his mind, a forthright characteristic inherited by Gretta. According to her obituarist, Miss Gretta Lyons was 'Brusque in manner, almost to rudeness [yet] generous in impulse...[and] out to help every woman who had to work for her living' (Australasian Trained Nurses Journal, 15 November 1923).

Gretta trained as a general nurse at the Alfred Hospital, graduating in July 1898. She then worked as a Sister at the Alfred Hospital, in private nursing, at Brisbane's Hospital for Sick Children and at Bendigo Hospital. In 1905, Lyons was Matron at Williamstown Hospital in Victoria where she was regarded as highly skilled. In 1908 she refurbished an existing private hospital at 8 Brunswick Street Fitzroy. It opened as 'Glenhope' the locality in Central Victoria where Gretta grew up, but became known as 'Nurse Lyons' Private Hospital'. Around 1912, Lyons undertook a study tour to examine nursing in England and France. In Paris, she studied chiropody, then an emerging area of speciality nursing practice, and on her return established a private practice at Oxford Chambers, 243 Collins Street.

Women's welfare was the focus of Lyon's energies. Early in her career, with the support of the Alfred Hospital's Board of Management, she founded a recreational club at her training hospital to promote 'the interchange of ideas and the promotion of social activities' (Alfred Hospital Nurses League). Advocating for improved health of mothers and babies, in 1914 with her colleague Maud Primrose, Gretta established what later became known as the Society for the Health of Women and Children. Outside health services, she was an active member of the Women's Citizens Movement, an organisation which sought to encourage women's 'full contribution as citizens to the life of the community' particularly through election to parliament and municipal government (Argus, 15 June 1934).

Gretta Lyons' greatest impact was in nursing's nascent professional arena. In December 1899, she was one of only fifteen nurses from Victoria to join the Australasian Trained Nurses Association (ATNA), the first ongoing professional association for nurses in Australia. Two years later, she was a foundation member of the Victorian Trained Nurses Association, a rival organisation established in 1901 and granted Royal Charter in 1904, hence RVTNA. As representative of nurse members on the RVTNA's governing Council from 1906, Gretta recognised that nurses were exploited by some employers. She was a lone voice for ordinary nurses' conditions of employment to be improved, particularly nurses engaged in private hospitals. Even as the RVTNA's President in 1918, she argued consistently that 'the time, ability and sometimes the health of nurses [as employees] was exploited by private hospitals for gain' (Western Mail, 23 March 1922). But when the RVTNA executive failed to support her quest to improve nurses' conditions, Lyons took matters into her own hands, leading an unprecedented move into the industrial sphere.

In 1921, with two colleagues, she established the Trained Nurses Guild as an industrial organisation, registering it with the Federal Court of Arbitration. The RVTNA subsequently appealed that registration, notionally because the Association considered nursing to be a professional activity not remotely akin to industrial work. Ultimately, no application for a federal award for nursing was made in Victoria, most probably because Lyons was ill with cancer from late 1921. But the existence of the Trained Nurses Guild, combined with a similar agitation underway in Queensland, forced the RVTNA and the ATNA to take account of conditions and pay for nurses. In 1924, a new national organisation the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF), was formed to deal with nursing's 'industrial' issues with the ATNA and RVTNA becoming state branches.

Gretta Lyons' criticism of the status quo in Victoria had stemmed from her exposure to nursing education and practice outside Australia. After stays in England and Europe, she visited America where she saw the eight-hours system working seamlessly in hospitals, when this very scheme was depicted in Australia as deleterious to everyone and everything. Lyons observed that in America not only was nursing's professional organisation a national entity, it was governed entirely by nurses. That autonomy entitled American nurses to the prestigious membership of the International Council of Nurses (ICN), a status denied to Australian nurses because men were welcomed as members of the RVTNA and ATNA and several occupied senior officer bearer positions.

For Lyons, another surprise about Americans generally was that 'Men and women work together for the good of the community and as a rule, amicably' without any apparent 'sex warfare' (Argus 13 October 1922). Gretta did not elaborate on what sex warfare meant, but it may have reflected ongoing tensions in nursing's professional arena where she did work closely with men as Councillors of the RVTNA: influential doctors, lawyers and businessmen. But while opposition to Miss Lyon's Trained Nurses Guild was trenchant, it was not gender-based. It came from many of her female nursing peers in the RVTNA and ATNA, as well as the male members who represented powerful interests: the British Medical Association and the Country Hospitals' Association. Across these senior echelons, it was Lyon's advocacy for ordinary nurses that rankled, as did her resolute push for the regulation of nursing by statute. In advocating for these two issues, Gretta effectively turned her back on her nursing and medical contemporaries who had been foundation members of the RVTNA.

This 'ardent feminist' made a substantial impact on Australian nursing over her career through bold, energetic leadership on statutory regulation for nurses and on nurses' economic conditions. Even in the days before her death, Miss Lyons told one of her visitors: 'I will die fighting' for the welfare of nurses (Australasian Trained Nurses Journal, 15 November 1923). Gretta Lyons died in November 1923 at East Melbourne, aged fifty-three. Her estate of £646 was left to Clare Cormick, her married sister. The Alfred Hospital Nurses League purchased a watercolour painting in her memory, to be erected in the Alfred's Nurses Home. The painting was a work of the late Mrs Ellis Rowan.

Archival Resources

The University of Melbourne Archives

  • The Alfred Hospital Nurses League, 1974.0085; The University of Melbourne Archives. Details

Published Resources


  • Australasian Trained Nurses Association, Australasian Trained Nurses Association Register of Members 1900, Sydney, New South Wales, 1900. Details
  • Trembath, Richard & Hellier, Donna, All Care and Responsibility: A History of Nursing in Victoria, 1850-1934, Florence Nightingale Committee, Australia, Victorian Branch, Melbourne, Victoria, 1987. Details

Journal Articles

  • 'Gretta Lyons Obituary', The Australasian Nurses Journal, vol. 12, no. 11, 15 November 1923, p. 564. Details

Online Resources

See also