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Story: Fraser, Isabella

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Fraser, Isabella


Hospital matron

This biography, written by Miriam H. Murray, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Isabella Fraser was born at Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 15 November 1857, the daughter of Charles Fraser, a chemist and surgeon dentist, and his wife, Mary Lyle. Educated at Belmont Private Academy, Greenock, she began her nursing training at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary School of Nursing on 1 April 1887. Here she proved a 'clever and thorough nurse, most careful, gentle, kindly and reliable.' She left in November 1889 to take charge of a ward at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow.

In 1890 Isabella Fraser resigned in order to accompany a sickly younger brother and his wife to Tasmania. When her help was no longer required, she obtained a position as night superintendent of nurses at Melbourne Hospital and remained there from March 1891 until March 1893. She became acting lady superintendent and began training nurses.

In March 1893 she took up the position of matron of Dunedin Hospital, New Zealand, the second trained nurse to do so. Empowered to appoint and discipline nurses, she became highly respected for her administrative and teaching skills. Her work was considered by the medical staff to be of such a high standard that she was asked to teach nursing skills to medical students at the University of Otago Medical School. She established the three-year training course in 1894 and her pupils often took first place in dominion examinations.

On 1 November 1895 Isabella Fraser became a life member of the Royal British Nurses' Association. A sub-matron and two assistant matrons were appointed to the hospital in 1903. In 1904 she travelled overseas to study changes in nursing techniques and health systems, especially in Great Britain. On her return she improved the nursing service at Dunedin Hospital to a level that was to be the standard of nursing care there for many years. Staff numbers were increased with appointments of ward sisters in the early 1900s, a theatre sister in 1906, and more nurses from 1908; and working hours were reduced.

Isabella Fraser believed that nursing was 'essentially a woman's work' and that 'To be a successful nurse Head & Heart, must go hand in hand.' She hoped that preliminary schools of nursing would soon be established throughout the colony, so that nurses would be well prepared before entering hospital wards. By placing training on a higher scholastic basis, 'more refined and intelligent women' would be recruited and the standard of the nursing profession would be raised. In her opinion each graduate nurse deserved to be paid according to her value to the hospital and the position that she occupied.

Trouble at Dunedin Hospital led to Fraser's resignation on 21 April 1911. Encouraged by a young resident doctor, a nurse told the local newspaper that leave was being denied to nurses wishing to visit dying relatives and that the cooking and serving of food to staff was not up to standard. These allegations were not supported by other nurses who declared that Isabella Fraser had been a most devoted and loyal matron. The assistant inspector of hospitals, Hester Maclean, set up an inquiry which completely exonerated Fraser. Nevertheless, she refused to withdraw her resignation.

A farewell function was held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. About 300 people attended, including medical staff, clergy, nursing colleagues and many prominent citizens, to show loyalty and respect to the woman who had professionalised the nursing service at Dunedin Hospital and to celebrate the naming of a medal in her honour. From 1912 the Fraser Medal was awarded to nurses for proficiency in practical nursing.

Isabella Fraser was a communicant member of the Presbyterian Knox Church in Dunedin and taught Sunday school. Although a member of the Dunedin (and later the Napier) branch of the New Zealand Trained Nurses' Association, she did not take an active part in their professional activities. On retirement she moved to Napier accompanied by her sister and niece. She became a member of both the New Zealand Medical Corps Nursing Reserve and the New Zealand Branch of the British Red Cross Society, giving home service during the First World War.

Isabella Fraser never married. She died in Napier on 24 November 1932 and was buried in the old Napier cemetery on Hospital Hill, a fitting resting place for one who helped to pioneer professional nursing in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Miriam H. Murray. 'Fraser, Isabella', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f21/fraser-isabella (accessed 19 July 2024)