Bush Nursing

Bush Nursing developed within the context of a progressive movement and the policies of soft eugenics which were sweeping Australia in the early twentieth century. Public health was coming to the fore, with children a central focus. Bush Nursing evolved in Tasmania after Lady Rachel Dudley, wife of the governor-general, suggested that trained nursing be provided in remote areas to assist with sickness and emergencies. Tasmania was the first state to respond, with Bush Nursing orders formed in Launceston in 1910, and Hobart in 1914. From 1920 the Department of Public Health took over administration, though the Bush Nursing Association continued in an advisory capacity.

Fifty-one different Bush Nursing Centres operated during the scheme, at remote mining areas like Adamsfield, islands such as Babel Island and Mount Chappell Island, and many country towns ranging from Southport to Marrawah. While some centres were under the control of the Department of Public Health, others were under the day-to-day control of local groups such as municipal councils, Medical Unions or special committees constituted for the purpose. These groups raised funds through membership subscriptions, rating and nursing fees. Various issues led to increasing control by the Department of Health and eventually local committees ceased activity, but auxiliaries and Country Women's Association branches continued to assist Bush Nurses. Eventually only Lilydale and Avoca Bush Nursing Centres retained their local committees, with strong local council support. The introduction of the free Government Medical Scheme in 1938, and increased government control, led to less willingness to pay for a service no longer locally controlled. In 1957 the service became the 'Government Nursing Service District Nursing Centres Division'.

The Bush Nurse's major activities were in midwifery and child health. Her role was important in the translation into practical outcomes of federal government initiatives, such as the maternity allowance, physical fitness campaigns and the improvement of standards in milk and foodstuffs. Bush Nurses instructed rural women in the hygiene of pregnancy and in mothering, as they visited homes after childbirth, ran baby clinics and taught childcare and mothercraft in schools. They also provided 'first contact care', as most isolated communities had no resident, and often no visiting, doctor. Bush Nurses were not intended to operate independently from doctors, but in practice, due to isolation and limited transport and communications, independent nursing was a feature.

Originally the scheme aimed to recruit older, more experienced nurses with country associations, single, without children, and temperate. The ideal Bush Nurse had to be able to rely on her own resources, ride a horse and drive a buggy, have the physical strength to remain on duty for long hours, be well trained and endowed with missionary spirit. Eventually some Bush Nurses were married, and some came from interstate and overseas; many were well travelled and experienced. Their work practices show they were independent practitioners by virtue of their isolation.

Further reading: M Bardenhagen, 'Professional isolation and independence of bush nurses in Tasmania 19101957', PhD thesis, UT, 2003.

Marita Bardenhagen