Nurses at the Zeehan hospital, undated photograph but probably c 1900 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Nursing in the early nineteenth century was a poorly paid, menial occupation, like domestic service. There was no training, and nursing consisted mainly of feeding patients and keeping them comfortable. Hospitals were dark and overcrowded, and nurses slept on the wards so were always on duty. At first nurses at the three hospitals (Launceston, Hobart, New Norfolk) were unpaid convicts, 'rough, ignorant women'; from the 1850s nurses were paid a pittance, but conditions were still poor. Matrons had higher status and pay, their main qualification being middle-class respectability.

In Britain, from the 1850s Florence Nightingale developed the Nightingale system, where trained, professional nurses worked in a hygienic and efficient institution. The Hobart General Hospital was the second in Australia to adopt it, when in 1875 Florence Abbott came from Sydney with four trained nurses. They found the hospital filthy, facilities inadequate and staff ignorant and dissolute. Despite male staff thwarting her efforts, Abbott, inspirational and firm, brought about a 'complete revolution' in cleanliness and order, and trained nurses for other hospitals. Devoted work in the typhoid epidemic of 1889 raised nurses in popular esteem. Nursing was hard, with long hours, low pay and arduous work (the Hobart hospital in 1914 had one nurse to 57 patients), but nurses did gain qualifications and could then support themselves by working in Australia or overseas. The Launceston General Hospital began the Nightingale system in 1881, and gradually hospitals were established around the state, employing trained nurses, and in four cases training nurses themselves. By 1911, there were 553 nurses in Tasmania, working in government hospitals, private hospitals and sometimes private homes. The Australian Trained Nurses' Association fought to improve standards, and its Tasmanian branch, set up in 1906, often won better conditions.

As trained nurses proved their worth, nursing diversified, with schemes set up for particular aspects. From 1893 District Nursing Associations assisted poor homes, and from 1910 the Bush Nursing Association did the same for isolated districts. The Queen Victoria (Launceston, 1897) and Queen Alexandra (Hobart, 1908) maternity hospitals provided nurses with training in midwifery, and many nurses went on to run small maternity hospitals which appeared in almost all towns. From 1907 the Tasmanian School Medical Scheme cared for schoolchildren's health. War nursing in the South African, First and Second World Wars provided women with an opportunity to serve their country as men did. In about 1920 the Hydro-Electric Commission established a nursing service for its isolated villages, beginning with Waddamana.

In 1927 the Nurses' Registration Act set up the Tasmanian Nurses' Registration Board, which took over this task from the Australian Trained Nurses' Association, and made the government responsible for examining and registering nurses. In the 1940s male nurses appeared, though women continued to dominate numerically. Major change occurred from the 1950s. New equipment and medicines made nursing more complex, auxiliary nurses undertook the more mundane tasks, traditional, often impractical uniforms and customs became simpler, and as nursing developed smaller hospitals stopped training, which occurred only at large public hospitals. From the 1970s, total patient care replaced task nursing, nurses gained more responsibility, and improving technology continued to transform nursing. Progressively to 1993, training moved to the University of Tasmania's School of Nursing in Launceston. Meanwhile, public campaigns and actions by nurses themselves forced government to raise their meagre salaries, and the Health Department began more community nursing schemes. In 2004 nurses worked in many areas all over Tasmania.

Further reading; A Alexander, 'The public role of women in Tasmania, 18031914', PhD thesis, UT, 1989; L Brown, History and memories of nursing at the Launceston General Hospital, Launceston, 1980; A Downie, Our first 100 years, Hobart, 1975; B Kelly, A background to the history of nursing in Tasmania, Hobart, 1977.

Alison Alexander and Marita Bardenhagen