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History Of Pioneering Queensland Nurse Unearthed

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A photograph album belonging to New Farm WWI nurse and Queensland’s first female dentist Sister Martha Burns has been found among archival records at Bolton Clarke’s Fernhill residential aged care community at Caboolture.

Sister Burns was among the earliest residents of the home after it opened as Queensland’s second War Veterans Home and was the sole occupant of the top floor quarters for retired nurses in 1959.

The album includes precious personal snaps from World War I, where, as both a trained nurse and Queensland’s first female dentist she served in the Australian Voluntary Hospital at St Nazaire and later at Boulogne, near Ypres.

Sister Burns paved the way for generations of young women to follow. In her own words she ‘had no intention of becoming a lady, driving out in the buggy and taking tea’ so instead became a nurse, training at the Brisbane Hospital from 1896 to 1900, despite her family’s protestations.

Her career as a dental student began with an argument with her Scottish engineer father ‘that no daughter of mine will work at such a thing as dentistry’. But she pointed out that after all, they would both be building bridges and in the end she got her way.

Her penchant for pushing the barriers was lifelong. Her two elder sisters were launched into society at private balls held in their family home, ‘Hope Mansel’ on the corner of Brunswick and Villiers streets at New Farm. Her eldest sister became Mrs John Mowbray.

In 1907 Sister Burns graduated as the first female dentist and bought her own car, becoming one of Brisbane’s first female motorists alongside Dr Lillian Cooper.

Having nursed patients through the bubonic plague in 1900 she ran her own private practice while playing a leading role in Red Cross including on their military hospitals committee, leading New Farm’s Women’s Emergency Corps branch during the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1919 and serving as president of the Brisbane Women’s Club.

Sister Burns was a central figure in fundraising for Queensland War Veterans Homes which later became RSL Care, eventually joining with Royal District Nursing Service (RDNS) and taking the new name Bolton Clarke after Brigadier William Kinsey Bolton and early RDNS leader Lady Janet Clarke.

Bolton Clarke is seeking information about family members who could help find a home for the historic album, which includes images of many Queensland servicemen and women and original images of men in the trenches.

If you have information, please email Corporate Communications.