Woman Kettle, Ellen Sarah (1922 - 1999)


Colac, Victoria, Australia
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia
Administrator and Nurse

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in Colac, Victoria, in 1922, Ellen Kettle completed her general nursing training at Geelong district hospital in 1945 and her midwifery certificate in Townsville, Queensland. After completing her training in 1951 Kettle spent the six months on Thursday Island caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This experience reawakened a childhood ambition to work among aboriginal people which prompted her to write to the Director of Health in Canberra asking about the opportunities for employment as a nurse in the Northern Territory. A few weeks later she was interviewed and commenced nursing on a Government Aboriginal settlement about 185 miles from Alice Springs. Conditions were rough on the isolated Yuendumu settlement which consisted of about 400 desert people. Most of them had no English and Kettle did not speak their language. The hospital and living quarters were constructed of unlined war-time camouflaged iron with no electricity or reticulated water.

In 1954 Nurse Kettle was appointed the Commonwealth Department of Health's first Rural Survey Sister pioneering mobile health work in isolated areas of the Northern Territory. Over the next five decades she almost single-handedly revolutionised Aboriginal health in the area by creating medical records for thousands of patients and drawing attention to their plight, particularly in regard to high infant mortality. In 1958 she began work on introducing standardized records and weight graphs for infants under five years of age. She visited all church missions, Government settlements and large cattle stations and started a register of Aboriginal births and deaths. In 1966 she used data obtained from the Northern Territory Methodist Missions to publish the first record of weight and height curves for Aboriginal children under five. In 1968, on her own initiative, she prepared a submission for the Northern Territory Director of Health detailing how nursing in the outback needed to be organised and what sort of staffing levels were required. Her approach and calls for change were usually met with indifference and even opposition. However the medical records that she gathered amounted to a body of evidence that the authorities could not deny. They formed the basis of improved service provision to remote Territorians, as imperfect as they still may be. In 1967 she was awarded an MBE for services to nursing.

In 1969 Kettle was seconded to Papua New Guinea as Principal Matron in charge of all nursing in the country. Here her key focus was on preparing indigenous nursing staff for senior posts as the country moved towards independence. She returned to Australia in 1975 and in 1977 was appointed Regional Matron for the East Arnhem region of the Northern Territory, a position she held until 1980. In retirement, Kettle began to record her own experiences as well as the broader history of health services in the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea. She passed away in Darwin in 1999.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia

  • Biographical cuttings on Ellen Sarah Kettle, M.B.E., nursing sister and author, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals, 411979; National Library of Australia. Details

National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection

  • Papers, 1969-1978 [manuscript], 1969 - 1978, MS 8114; National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Kettle, Ellen S, Gone Bush, 2nd edn, F. P. Leonard, Sydney, New South Wales, 1967. Details
  • Kettle, Ellen S, That they might live, F. P. Leonard, Sydney, New South Wales, 1979. Details
  • Kettle, Ellen S. and Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Health Services in the Northern Territory : a history 1824-1970, Australian National University (ANU): North Australia Research Unit, Darwin, Northern Territory, 1991. Details
  • Lea, Teresa and the United Nations Association of Australia, Northern Territory Division, Status of Women Committee, Bicentennial N.T. women's project '48-88' : Northern Territory women's register, U.N.A.A. Status of Women Committee (N.T.), Darwin, Northern Territory, 1988. Details

Online Resources

See also