Jessie Bicknell, who helped establish postgraduate and specialist training for nurses, was born in Oamaru, New Zealand, on 27 March 1871. She was one of eleven children of Elizabeth Armstrong and her husband, Frederick Bicknell, a postmaster. Educated at schools in Oamaru and Melbourne, Jessie trained as a nurse at Nelson Hospital, qualifying in 1903. Between 1903 and 1906 she worked at Wairau Hospital, Blenheim, and at Waipukurau Hospital. She then undertook midwifery training at St Helens Hospital, Dunedin, where she obtained her certificate in 1906.
Endowed with considerable intellectual and organisational abilities, Jessie Bicknell soon progressed to a managerial position. In May 1907 she began a long period of service as an assistant inspector in the Department of Hospital and Charitable Aid, working under Hester Maclean at a crucial time in the development of nursing and midwifery services. In 1904 legislation had made registration of midwives compulsory and had established a state training system; another act in 1906 set up a system for the licensing and inspection of private hospitals. Travelling throughout New Zealand from her Wellington base, Bicknell inspected hospitals and supervised midwives.
This work was interrupted by war service. Bicknell was made deputy matron in chief of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service in 1915, again serving under Hester Maclean. She sailed as matron on the hospital ship Maheno in January 1916, along with 13 members of the nursing service. While on this ship she crossed the English Channel several times, caring for wounded servicemen who were being returned to England from the Somme offensive. For her work during the war she was made an Associate of the Royal Red Cross, and subsequently she was active in the New Zealand Overseas Women War Workers' Association.
In 1917 she returned to the hospitals inspectorate and in 1923, on the retirement of Hester Maclean, she became director of the Division of Nursing in the Department of Health, and matron in chief of the armed forces. She was the first New Zealand-born director of nursing. In preparation for her appointment she was sent to England to observe new developments. On her return she attended a conference in Dunedin and there advocated university training for nurses.
Jessie Bicknell's desire to raise training standards was realised to some extent in the passing of the Nurses and Midwives Registration Act in 1925, to which she gave her full support. The act, as well as providing for the registration of nurses and midwives on the same basis, established two classes of maternity training: one for midwives, who were sole practitioners, and one for maternity nurses, who assisted doctors. A board consisting of five members, three of whom were nurses, determined courses of study, designated training hospitals and received applications for registration. These changes enhanced the status of the profession and opened up new training opportunities.
Bicknell's original aim had been to set up a nursing school in conjunction with the University of New Zealand but this was never realised, and indeed postgraduate training was not achieved without setbacks. A diploma of nursing at the University of Otago was terminated in 1926 soon after it was established because of a dispute over the payment of salaries to lecturers, but under Jessie Bicknell's leadership a postgraduate course was established in Wellington in 1928. Her support was essential to the success of this venture. Another important change instituted during her directorship which had her support was the introduction in 1925 of superannuation for nurses working in hospitals. However, she was unable to prevent the passing of an amendment to the registration act in 1930 to allow for training in private hospitals. This measure, seen as a threat to standards and to the ability of New Zealand nurses to register in other countries, was introduced 'much against her judgment or advice' and in the face of opposition from registered nurses.
Jessie Bicknell's strong commitment to the nursing profession was further shown in her work for the New Zealand Trained Nurses' Association. She attended the first meeting of the central council in 1909 and was appointed secretary. She helped to establish a close relationship from the beginning between the association and the Department of Health. The structure of the Nurses and Midwives Registration Board during Bicknell's term as director of nursing reflected this relationship. She was vice president of the central council in 1925, president of the Wellington branch from 1931 to 1937 and dominion president from 1935 to 1937. In the late 1920s she was the association's representative on the National Council of Women of New Zealand, contributing to the NCW's policy on health, and in the mid 1930s she suggested that the two organisations should work together to address the high incidence of septic abortion in New Zealand. As New Zealand delegate she attended conferences of the International Council of Nurses: at Copenhagen in 1923, Montreal in 1929 and London in 1937. In 1940 she published a history of the work of the association.
By this time she had retired as director of nursing. Mary Lambie, who succeeded her in 1931, described her as 'essentially a "Victorian" gentlewoman; dignified with a keen sense of right and wrong; reserved and with a dry humour'. She was strikingly tall, with an upright bearing, and was held in awe by those who did not know her well. She never married, but was a loyal friend and devoted to her family. The development of nursing in this country benefited considerably from her dedicated and thorough work. Jessie Bicknell died in Auckland at the age of 85 on 13 October 1956.