Foresight, flexibility and concern for her staff

Olive Kemmis

Olive Kemmis’ worklife spanned almost five decades of nursing and touched the lives of many generations.

Born in Neutral Bay, she was the second youngest in a family of five boys and three girls (all three girls became nurses) and was educated at Summer Hill then Fort Street High.

She commenced her nurse training at Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children (RAHC), Camperdown, in 1929 and became a registered nurse in 1934.

Olive continued working at the hospital, spent a short period in private nursing, then joined the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service in 1941, serving at Australian air bases and in Port Moresby and Madang.

She rarely spoke of her war experiences, apart from the extremes of conditions, but did mention in passing the sadness of seeing so many young lives wasted.

On leaving the Air Force in 1946, she returned to RAHC, where she was appointed Supervising Sister of Wade House, then Deputy Matron and later Matron in 1958. This position she held until she retired in 1971.

Reflecting on her achievements, D.G. Hamilton wrote in his book ‘Hand in Hand’ on the story of RAHC that she was ‘one who was just the right sort of person for the troubled state of affairs that existed … She was a gentle soul and a peacemaker but a capable one’. Olive invoked many changes: 6am starts became 7am and study blocks for the nurses were introduced; personal freedoms were addressed by allowing students to live outside the hospital if they wished; students were allowed to marry and still remain on the staff; many were very happy to see the demise of the veil. These are only a few of the many changes and for that era she showed foresight, flexibility and concern for her staff.

Education was her passion and she helped establish a scholarship fund for postgraduate training. Olive also set up an auxiliary to raise funds for the Hospital.

Olive was a fellow of the College of Nursing, a council member for the Children’s Medical Research Foundation and held official positions in the Institute of Hospital Matrons and the Bush Nursing Association.

In 1973, she was awarded a medal in the Order of the British Empire (BEM) for her dedication to nursing.

Her family commitments never faltered throughout her busy life.She remained to the end the corner-stone for all her nieces, nephews, their children and grand-children, and was always interested in their lives and  achievements. Her lively spirit has touched many of us.

By Margaret Ireland, RN