Woman Farquharson, Martha Durward (1847 - 1929)

Galway, Ireland
August 1929
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia
Administrator, Nurse and Private Hospital Owner

Written by Madonna Grehan, The University of Melbourne

The larger part of Martha Farquharson's almost forty-year career as a nurse was spent in Victoria, where she was an exemplar of early nursing's leadership at the turn of the twentieth century. Farquharson's Christian beliefs and her foundational training as a nurse in England substantially informed her activities in Australian nursing. As her obituarist wrote in 1929, Martha Farquharson was 'a woman of great public spirit, deeply interested in the progress of the Profession of Nursing. Holding her vocation in the highest esteem, she was able to inspire her pupils with high ideals' (British Journal of Nursing, November 1929).

Martha Farquharson was born in Galway in 1847, the second of eight children to John Farquharson and Anne Christopherson. Named for her paternal grandmother Elizabeth Durward and her maternal grandmother, Martha Wilson, Martha was fourteen when she migrated to Australia, with her parents and six siblings, arriving in July 1861. Her mother and a young sibling died one year later. The fact that Martha's father remarried and had a second family may have had an influence on Martha's later independence.

Farquharson's philosophy of service as a nurse was grounded in Protestant Christian traditions. Around 1872 at the age of twenty-five, she travelled to England where she taught with an Anglican sisterhood, the Mildmay Mission in East London. Mildmay was an evangelical Christian service, run according to Church of England principles. It had a training home for deaconesses who ministered to London's poor, as teachers or nurses. It also ran the Mildmay Memorial Cottage Hospital, staffed by the nursing branch of the Mildmay Deaconess Institute. Martha Farquharson entered Mildmay's Deaconess Nursing House in 1884 for three years' training in nursing.

Typical of nurses who sought varied clinical experience, Martha's pattern of employment after training was diverse. From Mildmay she went to Manchester's Crumpsall Infirmary for a year, later claiming a certificate in nursing from that institution. Two more years with Mildmay was followed by a position at the Doncaster General Infirmary. After thirteen years in England in all, Martha Farquharson returned to Australia in 1885, securing a temporary role as night sister at Prince Alfred Hospital. A succession of senior positions followed. She was Matron of the Coast Hospital (later called Prince Henry's) which catered for smallpox and other cases thought to be contagious. After nursing privately for two years, she superintended a private hospital.

In 1888, Farquharson returned to Victoria where she built on her administrative capacity. She was Lady Superintendent at Sir Thomas Fitzgerald's Private Hospital in Spring Street Melbourne, for two years. From 1890 to 1895 she was Matron at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital, and from 1895 to 1900 was Matron at the Melbourne Hospital. At age fifty-three, Martha built and operated a private hospital and sanatorium at Corowa in New South Wales, a venture that, ultimately, was not successful. She returned to Victoria in 1902, accepting an appointment as Matron at Bendigo Hospital, a position she held until retirement in 1913. In 1917 her replacement at Bendigo Hospital volunteered for the Australian Army Nursing Service and, impelled by her Christian mission to serve, Farquharson acted as Bendigo's Matron, without pay, until the end of the war.

Her extensive experience throughout Britain and Australia ensured that Farquharson had numerous connections to the first wave of feminism. In 1887, a growing professional consciousness within English nursing had resulted in the formation of a British Nurses Association (BNA, awarded Royal Charter in 1894, hence RBNA). Martha joined the BNA in December 1892. In 1894, she was elected by the Executive Council of the RBNA as Local Secretary in for Victoria, the first appointment of its kind in the Colonies. She was a regular correspondent to the RBNA's journal, the Nursing Record and Hospital World, maintaining communications with her friends worldwide by reporting on Australian nursing, including its perceived failings. In 1896, Farquharson presented a paper at a Nursing Conference in London, in which she argued that the salaries paid to trained nurses were insufficient for the work and the responsibility it carried.

When an International Council of Nurses was established at a satellite meeting of the International Council of Women in 1895, Farquharson was a foundation member (Councillor). One Australian newspaper later pointed out that this organisation was unique, saying: 'The remarkable feature of the new nurses' organisation is that all officers are of the profession' (Chronicle, 6 October 1900). Martha Farquharson, subsequently, was elected an Honorary Member of the Matron's Council of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and feted as a leader within the nursing world for her promotion of education and training in colonial nursing. Farquharson brought this extensive experience of organisational self-government by women to Australian nursing's professionalization at the turn of the twentieth century.

In December 1899, Miss Farquharson was a foundation member of the Australasian Trained Nurses Association (ATNA) and was appointed Victoria's representative to the ATNA's governing Council. When a Victorian Trained Nurses Association (VTNA) was established in 1901, she joined that organisation in its first year and was appointed to its Council as representative of the Bendigo Sub-Centre. In that role Farquharson gave lectures and conducted nursing examinations for training hospitals in the expansive Bendigo region. In 1900, she was of three who constituted the selection board to pick ten Victorian nurses to serve in the Second South African War 1899-1902. Her fellow Board members were: Dr Gerald Fetherston, Principal Medical Officer of the Victorian Defence Force, and Matron of the Alfred Hospital, Miss Julia Ayres.

Within the male-dominated medical field in Australia, Martha Farquharson's Christian values and her training as a deaconess of the Anglican Church inevitably positioned her as a co-operative actor, although she was not subsumed by it. In fact, she rejected the domination of men in nursing's professional realm, especially male doctors. In 1897, Farquharson resigned her membership of the RBNA for this reason, because she (like many of her peers) believed that 'the Nurses Association absolutely [was] controlled by Honorary Medical Officers and their medical colleagues' which encouraged nurses to be subservient, rather than fulfilling the RBNA's purpose 'of maintaining a closer connection among persons practising as nurses' (Nursing Record and Hospital World, 20 November 1897).

Martha Farquharson's was a quiet yet determined leader of nursing in its formative years. Passionate about elevating nursing into a respectable, reputable, and regulated, occupation for women, she led by example of extraordinary public service and a commitment to nursing's nascent professional sphere. Martha Farquharson died in Bendigo, in August 1929.

Archival Resources

The University of Melbourne Archives

  • Australian Nursing Federation, Victorian Branch, 1867 - 1989, 1991.0026; 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

Book Sections

  • Baggs, A. P.; Bolton, Diane K; and Croot, Patricia E. C ., 'Islington: Undenominational Mission', in Baker, T.F.T. And Elrington, C. R. (eds), A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 8 Islington and Stoke Newington parishes, vol. 8, Boydell and Brewer, United Kingdom, 1985, pp. 115 - 117. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=5195. Details

Journal Articles

  • 'Royal British Nurses Association Meeting of Executive Committee', Nursing Record and Hospital World, vol. 13, no. 351, 22 December 1894, pp. 413 - 415. Details
  • 'Nurses of Note', Nursing Record and Hospital World, vol. 15, no. 392, 5 October 1895, p. 223. Details
  • 'Nursing in Victoria', Nursing Record and Hospital World, vol. 17, no. 442, 19 September 1896, pp. 233 - 234. Details
  • 'Nursing Politics', Nursing Record and Hospital World, vol. 19, no. 503, 20 November 1897, p. 410. Details
  • 'Our Foreign Letter', Nursing Record and Hospital World, vol. 24, no. 629, 21 April 1900, p. 323. Details
  • 'A Fresh Field', Nursing Record and Hospital World, vol. 25, no. 658, November 1900, p. 375. Details
  • 'The Passing Bell', British Journal of Nursing, vol. 77, no. 1936, November 1929, p. 310. Details

Online Resources

See also