Selina Sutherland (whose name at baptism was Sutherland Sutherland) was born on 26 December 1839 at Culgower, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, the third child of Jane McDonald and her husband, Baigrie Sutherland, a farm servant. She became known as Sulina, then Selina, and later incorporated Murray and McDonald into her name. She went to the Portgower school, Helmsdale, worked on the family croft, and was brought up in the Free Church of Scotland.
Listed as a domestic servant, Selina Sutherland travelled as an assisted immigrant on the Eastern Empire from London, arriving at Lyttelton, New Zealand, on 4 January 1865. Later she arrived unannounced at the home of her sister, Margaret Grant, at Gladstone, Wairarapa. The two sisters had not met for about 10 years. Selina stayed with Margaret and her husband, Robert Grant, on their sheep station, Bannockburn.
Selina Sutherland had studied medicine privately with the intention of becoming a nurse. In New Zealand she was able to realise this ambition as the central Wairarapa area had neither a doctor nor a hospital. She skilfully tended the sick, both Maori and Pakeha, riding on horseback through any weather over rough tracks and difficult roads. She advised sheepstation owners to improve the often overcrowded and unhygienic accommodation provided for their workers. In 1874, during a typhoid epidemic in New Zealand, she tended six men at Alfredton and single-handedly nursed them back to health.
In 1877 she put forward the idea of building a hospital in Masterton, and led a committee of citizens who planned and raised money for a 20-bed establishment. She collected most of the £500 required, soliciting money from as far afield as Wellington. The hospital was opened in early 1879 with William Hosking as its first surgeon.
In January 1879 Selina Sutherland was appointed matron of Wellington Hospital. In August 1880 she was publicly accused by some members of the hospital staff of drinking alcohol and behaving in a disorderly manner while she was working, but she was exonerated from these charges. In late 1880 she resigned after a dispute with the committee of trustees. They disagreed with her view, orthodox today, that sudden cessation of drinking was harmful to hardened drinkers. She had allowed alcoholic patients access to small amounts of alcohol while in hospital.
Selina Sutherland left New Zealand and settled in Melbourne, Australia, in 1881. In August, as lady missionary with the Scots' Church District Association, she began looking after destitute children, and in October initiated the Neglected Children's Aid Society. Through the society she was authorised to reclaim destitute children from slums, brothels and gambling dens, a task she performed personally in complete safety, so commanding was her presence. She sought permanent foster homes for the children, believing that integration into a family was far better for them than institutional care.
In the early 1890s Selina Sutherland recommended that the work of the society be increased because of the conditions caused by worsening economic times. But the society's committee, concerned about costs, opposed her and in September 1893 she and 14 committee members resigned. In November the Presbyterian Society for Destitute and Neglected Children was formed, with Selina Sutherland as agent. Controversy again arose because of restrictive recommendations by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church's commission, which gave preference to Presbyterian children and proposed to use only Presbyterian foster homes. In November 1894 Sutherland and her ladies' committee resigned. At a public meeting on 7 December the Victorian Neglected Children's Aid Society was formed with Selina Sutherland as an agent. It ran a receiving centre in the city as well as a home (later named the Sutherland Home) in Parkville.
In 1897 Selina Sutherland travelled to Britain, where she was presented to Queen Victoria and received a diamond brooch. After her return to Melbourne, Sutherland sold this to raise money for her charitable work. In 1905 she revisited New Zealand.
In May 1908 Selina Sutherland's own ladies' committee dismissed her because of allegations by domestic staff of inefficiency, insobriety and ill-treatment of the children. These complaints were later judged groundless by a committee of inquiry. In June, together with some of her old committee, Sutherland formed the Sutherland Homes for Orphans, Neglected and Destitute Children. This new society prospered with the generous gift in April 1909 of a house and land at Diamond Creek.
Selina Sutherland contracted pleurisy and pneumonia and died in Melbourne on 8 October 1909. She had never married and at her death she owned less than £10. A forthright leader motivated primarily by her Christian concern for the oppressed, Sutherland attracted enthusiastic followers as well as provoking opposition. A memorial in Melbourne praises the woman who had 'rescued 3,000 waifs from its streets and slums'. A memorial tablet in Masterton Hospital commemorates her 'unswerving and self-sacrificing ministrations to the sick and afflicted' of Wairarapa.