LUCY OSBURN – YORKSHIRE LASS AND NIGHTINGALE NURSE
Lucy Osburn was a Yorkshire lass, a well-educated and cultured woman, who was to revolutionise nursing in Australia.
She was born in Leeds in 1837, the younger daughter of the Oriental scholar, William Osburn. When she was twenty years of age Lucy travelled in the Middle East, and in one of her letters she mentions helping to ‘break in’ horses on Syrian plains. She added that this experience taught her that in order to control it was necessary to keep a firm but not too tight a hold on the reins. The lesson was to serve her well in later life.
In 1866 (against the wishes of her family) she joined to the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’s Hospital as a paying or ‘Special’ Probationer. As such, she was contracted to work for the Nightingale Fund for three years after her training. Nightingale taught a two-tier system, whereby nurses from the working class entered as ordinary Probationers and were expected to remain Nurses for the rest of their careers. Special Probationers such as Lucy were middle-class women who were groomed for leadership roles as Sisters (or ward managers) and eventually Lady Superintendents or Matrons.
‘I think extremely well of her. She appears to be a woman of great good sense and practical with sound church principles, and I am inclined to think would make a good superintendent.’
An important feature of the Nightingale system was the role of the matron or lady superintendent. Before Nightingale’s reforms, the matron had played a minor role in the provision of nursing care in hospitals, and had been more a housekeeper. Nightingale saw her role as a much more important and pivotal one. In fact, Nightingale's aim was to take control of hospital nursing out of the hands of the male doctors and give it to a highly skilled nurse, who would be responsible for all facets of the internal management of the hospital.
Not long after Lucy began her training, Nightingale received a request from the Colony of New South Wales, begging her to send a team of nurses to the colony:
"The Government of this Colony is desirous of engaging the services of four ladies who have received an efficient training as nurses in some well-managed English hospital. These trained nurses are required for the Sydney Infirmary where proper apartments will be provided for them by the time of their arrival in the Colony, but it is desired that in the performance of their duties in this Institution they shall become the hospital instructors of such other female attendants as might from time to time be placed under their superintendence. "
The colony was desperate. As early as 1857 the medical staff at the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary had petitioned the Hospital Board to adopt a more efficient system of nursing, and in 1864 they reported that the inefficiency of the sick attendants was the greatest obstacle against which they had to contend. In the 1860s the number of complaints about the standard of nursing at the Sydney Infirmary had increased to an embarrassing extent. The accepted authority on nursing in the world was Florence Nightingale. Who better to approach for help with this problem?
Nightingale agreed to send five nurses, but insisted that they be under the control of a Lady Superintendent. Lucy was one of the few Lady Probationers in training and when approached, declared herself willing, for health reasons, to migrate to New South Wales.
Although she had missed three months of her year’s training due to illness (her time in the Middle East had left her with a tendency to attacks of ague and dysentery), there was no one else and Lucy was selected to head the team of nurses to go to Sydney.
Nightingale sent the nurses to Sydney on the basis that Osburn, as Lady Superintendent, would have the entire responsibility of the internal management of the wards at the Infirmary and for the conduct, discipline and duties of the nurses. She would have ultimate responsibility for the care of the linen and bedding, the cleanliness, proper ventilation and warming of the wards, the care and cleanliness of the sick, the administration of diets, medicines and enemas ordered by the medical staff, the performance of minor dressings, and generally to ensure that all orders of the medical staff were complied with.
Lucy left for New South Wales in December 1867. She was 30 years of age, had barely a year’s training behind her and no experience at all in superintending a hospital.
A week later Lucy and her nurses were nursing Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh. He was on a good-will tour of Australia and had been shot while picnicking at Clontarf. The injured prince was taken to the Sydney Infirmary. The Nightingale nurses received very good publicity, from local newspapers. It was not to last.
Criticism and complaints dogged Lucy from the moment she arrived in Sydney. It was claimed that she was too High Church and a crypto-Catholic, that her friends were in the upper echelon of society and she spent too much time with them, that she was dictatorial and autocratic. There was even an allegation made that she abused her office by making a profit on the sale of clothing to her nurses.
Lucy was charming and made influential friends in the colony, but she also had to deal with petty slights and jealous behaviour from the medical men of the hospital who were aggrieved at a woman being in a position of such influence. The new nursing regime she wished to introduce was too innovative for conservative Sydney and was opposed by many in the hospital hierarchy. Although a number of influential doctors at the Infirmary had lobbied for trained nurses to be introduced, they wanted the nurses to be under the complete authority of the doctors
One resident doctor made a point of locking the main gate on every evening that Lucy dined at Government House, which meant that she had to enter the hospital grounds at a side gate and scurry across the dark yard to her rooms, often in the rain.
The Nightingale wing of the Infirmary was built
especially for the Nightingale nurses
In February 1869 Lucy wrote to Nightingale, saying that she had two evils to contend with at the Sydney Infirmary: rats and loneliness.
Rats were indeed a major concern at the hospital, as they ran through wards at night and even found their way into the mortuary to mutilate the bodies. Lucy wrote that she decided upon a course of action that she thought would deal with both problems at once:
"So I got a beautiful well-bred black & tan English terrier not so big as a rat himself when I got him but he was quite a puppy & grew to be quite able to master the biggest rat & with my careful training was so clever we never saw a rat in the house for months . . . He used to watch for me until I locked up the office in an even(in)g & went upstairs when his delight knew no bounds, so I always felt I had some love to go to when the day was over. The Committee I suppose thought this a luxury not to be allowed to a nurse so I was requested to part with him. & now we have all the rats back again. "
(Letter Osburn to Nightingale 26 February 1869)
She concluded her letter by writing that she supposed the House Committee ‘could not picture what solitude is’.
In 1870 she was forced to appear before a Hospital Board of Inquiry into allegations made by the Protestant Standard newspaper that she was anti-Protestant and favoured Catholics. She was entirely vindicated. The Commissioners found that nursing was the only department of the hospital that was not deficient. By then it was generally acknowledged, even by the doctors, that the new system was a vast improvement on the old.
Despite this, Lucy continued to face criticism well into the 1880s, and every one of the numerous complaints against her was gleefully reported in the Sydney newspapers.
In November 1884, during one of her many bouts of illness and after yet more hostile newspaper reports, Lucy resigned. She cited health reasons for her departure, and returned to England in 1885.
In her sixteen years at the Infirmary (by then called Sydney Hospital) she had supervised the training of approximately 153 nurses, many of whom who had gone on to leading hospital and institutional positions across Australia, and also internationally. It was these women who were the nucleus of the modern nursing profession in Australia.
There is a memorial tablet on the wall of the Sydney Hospital Chapel in her memory and the Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Museum at Sydney Hospital is in her old rooms in the Nightingale Wing.
(The above is taken from my book, Nurses of Australia: The Illustrated Story (2018: National Library of Australia Publishing Division).