Crying in the Wilderness or, Nursing in the Twilight of Australian Colonialism

Charles Cornwallis (University of Melbourne Bachelor of Arts student)

The last 15 years of Australian administration in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea were a period of rapid social and political change. Even within this context, a particularly unusual position was occupied by the expatriate public servants working in the Territory’s Administration. Evidence in the Royal Australian Nursing Federation (RANF) collection in the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) allows us explore the situation of these workers through the actions of one group, the nurses of the Territory’s health service. Their attempt to form an industrial organisation during the 1960s offers a new perspective on the period, allowing us to see the final years of Administration through the concerns of those working right along its fault-lines.

The Papua New Guinea Nurses Association

In her grand survey of 75 years of nursing in Papua New Guinea, Ellen Kettle devotes little more than a paragraph to the Territory’s first professional nursing association. She records that an initial attempt was made in 1962 but that progress was slow and the actual goal was not reached until a decade later, in 1972. Archival evidence, while by no means a complete account of the formation of the PNG Nurses Association, allows us to add to the story outlined by Kettle.

In the RANF collection, the first mention of a nurses association actually appears in 1956, six years earlier than Kettle records. Towards the end of that year, the Assistant Secretary of the RANF in Melbourne wrote to Jean Henderson, an Anglican mission nurse working in Oro Bay in Papua. She was writing in response to a call (from who is unclear) for a link to be established between nurses in the Territory and the RANF, and suggested that she could assist them in joining one of the Australian state branches. Henderson however replied that she wished to establish something more – a professional organisation for nurses in the Territory. Such an association would, she felt, greatly assist them in achieving uniformity in methods and training, and help to encourage indigenous involvement in the profession. She thanked the RANF for its offer, but indicated that she would work towards establishing an association on her own.

The issue then seems to disappear until 1961, when the RANF once again began to receive requests for information. This time the push was coming from two women in very senior positions in the Administration. In 1961 Joyce Jones was writing as a Senior Matron of the Department, and within a few years she would be appointed Principal Matron, putting her in command of all nursing services in the Territory. Violet Bignold, the other correspondent, had military experience during the war, and at the time occupied a senior administrative position in the ICMH Division.

They both contacted the RANF with similar requests – nurses in the Territory were considering organisation, and any information or advice on how to go about it would be greatly appreciated. The RANF happily mailed off the relevant rules and instructions, but once again the association failed to eventuate. Why is not exactly clear. Kettle merely states that “many stumbling blocks were presented”, but the archives suggest that an application was actually taken to the RANF in 1962 and that there it was either rejected or simply not acted upon. Nevertheless, the ball was now well and truly rolling and over the next few years the project would not only continue, but would also become entangled with the political changes of the time.

On 20 July 1963, “Pixie” Annatt arrived in Port Moresby on what had originally been holiday from her work as the Assistant Secretary of the Queensland Branch of the RANF. However, the trip to see her sister had been too valuable an opportunity to miss and Annatt’s holiday had duly been co-opted for another purpose by the Federal branch. As a result of the RANF’s anxieties about “changes emerging” in the Territory, Annatt was asked to embark on an extensive fact-finding mission of interviews and investigations.

The report that Annatt produced is one of the most interesting documents of the collection. It contains firsthand information which was gathered from all over the Territory and shipped back to the headquarters in Melbourne. It also describes the state of the nursing profession as seen by one who had made their professional and industrial advancement her career. Annatt was not impressed with what she found. In centres right across the territory the same complaints were recorded again and again. Nurses were frustrated with the lack of professional autonomy – in areas like training and promotion they were being overruled by the Department, and the result was a clear decline in standards of care. Coupled with this were the perennial problems of work in the Territory. Conditions were poor, with equipment and personal amenities in very short supply. Nurses worked for low wages in often isolated areas and had little more than basic supplies and the goodwill of the local population (not always forthcoming) on which to survive. Annatt declared that these problems were creating a desperate situation – indeed, her report provides the evocative quote which gives this article its title.

Annatt’s report seems to have precipitated a flurry of activity back in Australia. Meetings were held with the Minister for External Territories where the plight of Territory nurses was explored in detail. When a wage deductions dispute (or more accurately, the threat that this might drive nurses to join a rival organisation, the Public Service Association) was thrown into the mix in 1964, a further series of letters and visits to the Territory appear in the records. In early 1965 Annatt returned to the Territory, this time to witness a meeting which resulted in the creation of a Nursing Committee which was charged with first establishing an Association and then deciding whether to affiliate with the RANF.

After 1965 the records become a little patchier but it can be assumed that the work of the committee quietly continued, requiring little further input from Australia. Eventually a constitution was adopted and the Association came into being in 1972, although the RANF had little to do with it. With independence only a few years away, the Territory nurses had created an independent, national organisation which would have no official links to the Australian one.

After more than a decade of work from the RANF, this result seems slightly anticlimactic. However, if viewed in light of the social and political context of the Territory in the 1960s, this story illustrates what must have been a common tension experienced by those expatriates working in the Territory in the lead-up to independence. The nurses of the Territory’s Department of Health had long worked on the frontlines of public health in PNG. The Department’s Infant, Child and Maternal Health (ICMH) Division was able to ‘reach out’ into indigenous Territory society far more than other, urban-based services. Indeed, this ‘reaching out’ operated in both directions; the ICMH was also one of the earliest government services to begin official training of indigenous staff, with nursing orderly courses being opened in 1951.

By the beginning of the 1960s however, the character of Australian administration in the Territory was changing. The day when Australia would hand over its responsibilities to Papua and New Guinean nationals was coming.

The drive to create a nurses association was naturally influenced by these changes in the Territory. From the very beginning, the Territory nurses leading the push described the project in terms of creating a sustainable profession, by giving indigenous nurses the experience and authority to continue co-ordinating activities after independence.

At the same time however, the project was also an effort to resist the effects of localisation. Horrified as Annatt was at the conditions in the Territory, this was not what had prompted the nurses there to request her help. It seems far more likely that the “changes” which had prompted Annatt’s mission were the imminent completion of a new nursing syllabus and the formation of a Nursing Council within the Department of Health. Both of these moves can be seen as efforts by the Department to gain more control over a profession which had to be restructured to outlive Australian involvement. The Territory nurses also faced a more personal threat – in one letter, Lyn Mcalister voiced her concerns that the jobs of expatriate nurses were not safe.

The nurses’ push to create an industrial association thus reveals the curious double-bind in which many in the Administration found themselves. On the one hand, they were committed to preparing the Territory for self-sufficiency and independence but on the other, forced to react personally against the very processes which they began for this purpose. Ultimately, and in spite of their dealings with the RANF, it was this first objective which would win out, resulting in an independent, national association.



Primary Sources

Report of the Assistant Secretary to the Council of the RANF Queensland Branch, on her return from Papua and New Guinea; July-August 1963. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/63, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Report of Meeting, 2nd February 1965, Turama Hospital, Papua New Guinea. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/65, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

“New Guinea Call to Clear Way for Independence.” The Canberra Times. 23rd January 1965. Accessed [online] from <|||dateTo=1970-12-31>.

Bignold, Violet. Letter to the Secretary-General of the RANF. 9th June 1961. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/61, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Department of Public Health, Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Annual Report, 1962-1963. Port Moresby, 1963.

Hall, V.M. Letter to C. E. Barnes, Minister for Territories. 25th June 1964. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/64, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Henderson, Jean. Letter to the Assistant Secretary. 13th January 1957. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/56, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Jarrett, L. Letter to the Executive. 20th February 1963. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/63, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Jarrett, L. Letter to Dr Symes. 23rd December 1968. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/68, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Jones, Joyce. Letter to Secretary of the RANF. 24th May 1961. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/38/61, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Kirchner, J. V. Letter to Jean Henderson. 24th December 1956. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/56, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Lalor, W. A. Statement: Public Service Ordinance. September 1964, Port Moresby. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/44/64, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Mcalister, Lyn. Letter to L. Jarrett. 15th February 1963. “Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Federal Office”. P/38/63, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne.

Secondary Sources

Denoon, Donald. “The Political Economy of Western Medical Services in Papua New Guinea.” In A History of Medicine in Papua New Guinea: Vignettes of an Earlier Period, ed. Burton Burton-Bradley, 77-100. Kingsgrove, N.S.W: Australasian Medical Publishing, 1990.

Kettle, Ellen. That They Might Live. Sydney: F. P Leonard, 1979.

Nelson, Hank. “Liberation: The End of Australian Rule in Papua New Guinea.” Journal of Pacific History 35, 3 (2000): 269–280.

Scragg, Roy. “Medical tul-tul to Doctor of Medicine.” In A History of Medicine in Papua New Guinea: Vignettes of an Earlier Period, ed. Burton Burton-Bradley, 15-46. Kingsgrove, N.S.W: Australasian Medical Publishing, 1990.


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