Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne: a female doctor’s experience in wartime

Of the 129 female doctors in Australia at the outbreak of War, fifteen saw the opportunity of a lifetime and volunteered to serve their country abroad. One of these was Queensland doctor Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne. You can explore her story in the Distant Lines: Queensland voices of the First World War exhibition currently on at State Library of Queensland. Eleanor Bourne is one of 25 Queenslanders whose experiences and collections are featured in the exhibition.

Always an outstanding student, Eleanor Bourne had topped the state in the scholarship examination of 1891, and entered Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School in 1892. Keen to study medicine and unable to find the prerequisite subjects at Girls’ Grammar, she attended Brisbane Grammar School (Boys) in 1896 to complete her secondary education and facilitate tertiary scholarship application. Eleanor was awarded the Sydney University Exhibition in 1896, and this scholarship enabled her to become the first Queensland woman to study medicine.

From 1903 Bourne was resident medical officer at the Women’s Hospital, Sydney, the first woman resident at Brisbane General Hospital, and she worked at the Hospital for Sick Children, Brisbane before entering general practice in 1907. Appointed the first Medical Inspector of Schools in the Department of Public Instruction in 1911, she travelled extensively through regional Queensland establishing principles and implementing practices for the medical examination of children.

Disagreements with the Department and a heavy workload fuelled Bourne’s desire for a change. Undeterred that the Australian Army did not admit female doctors, and determined to support the Allies and prove herself, she embarked for England in early 1916 at her own expense, and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps in London in May 1916. As a Lieutenant she served in the Endell Street Military Hospital, London, recently founded by Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson, and staffed entirely by women.

The Staff of the Military Hospital Endell St. W.C., LSE Women's Library

Staff of the Military Hospital Endell St. W.C., LSE Women’s Library

State Library holds a number of reminiscences by Eleanor Bourne, and OM81-130 Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne Papers details Bourne’s memories of her time at Endell Street. She describes the varied work of the nursing staff, the high level of nurturing and comfort provided at the hospital, and remembers with much admiration the skill, professionalism and determination of her esteemed colleagues at a time when women were still considered capable of only limited service. You can view her digitised manuscript, but State Library has recently  created both a typed transcript and audio file of the reminiscence, so you can read and listen to Dr Bourne’s experiences during the First World War.

Promoted to Major in 1917, Bourne was attached to Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps and appointed Medical Controller, Northern Command until the end of the War. She obtained a Diploma of Public Health in 1920, and continued her career in Britain, appointed assistant medical officer to the city of Carlisle, responsible for child and maternal welfare services and the new maternity hospital. She returned to Queensland upon retirement in 1937, and passed away in 1957.

To read more about Dr. Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne, see her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Robyn Hamilton – QANZAC100 Content Curator, State Library of Queensland