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On Remembrance Day this year, St Vincent’s staff gathered to honour the life of a nurse who served during World War I.
Back in 2015 the St Vincent’s Archives and Heritage Centre received an Anzac Centenary Grant to trace and document stories about the hospital’s World War I nurses.
This project involved commissioning a historian to provide a comprehensive list of nurse war veterans from St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. At the start of the project, only two nurses had been formally identified but this research later revealed there were 68 St Vincent’s nurses who served during World War I.
Among the serving members was Marie Evelyn Armstrong, who Archives Volunteer Maureen Mitchell found listed in the Boroondara General Cemetery records. She also learned there was no plaque at Marie’s burial site to commemorate her.
Maureen shared this information with the St Vincent’s Hospital Graduate Nurses Association, who helped raise the funds required for a plaque and ceremony to honour the former nurse.
Marie was born in the Victorian town of Bendigo, in 1870. She was the eldest of four children and was orphaned at an early age. As the eldest child she became the primary carer for her siblings.
At around the age of 42 she started her nursing training at St Vincent’s, which she completed in January 1915 and then enlisted with the Australian Army Nursing Service in January 1917.
She was 46 at the time but service records indicate that Marie reported her age as 36. It is thought she may have done this to avoid having her application rejected, given most World War I nurses were under the age of 40.
She departed Melbourne on the SS Khiva in May 1917 to work at the 34th Welsh General Hospital in Deolali, India. The hospital complex consisted of old army huts and stone buildings that accommodated around 2000 patients.
About six days after she arrived, Marie was promoted in rank from Staff Nurse to Sister. Throughout her service, she cared for patients with malaria, cholera and Spanish influenza.
A ceremony to honour Marie was held on Remembrance Day this year and included the installation of a plaque at her previously unmarked grave. Representatives from St Vincent’s Hospital, the Sisters of Charity, St Vincent’s Graduate Nurses Association and the St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne Archives Committee attended, along with members of Marie’s family, including her great great-nephew, Stephen.
“Today is an opportunity to reflect on the strong sense of duty that Marie displayed throughout her life. Her endurance was perhaps made stronger by the knowledge of the greater endurance of the patients she cared for” says Stephen.
Kathryn Riddell, Chief Nursing Officer at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne says remembering Marie in this special way is significant and we are very proud and thankful to finally honour and recognise her service and sacrifice.
“This is a reminder for myself and our current generation of nurses who have been battling the COVID pandemic for the last two years, that like our forebears, there have been significant times in history that have tested our resilience, compassion and commitment.
"We feel a greater sense of connection with the nurses who have walked before us, particularly those like Marie, who nursed during a time of crisis” says Kathryn.