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Story: FitzGibbon, Hanorah Philomena

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FitzGibbon, Hanorah Philomena


Civilian and military nurse, hospital matron, nursing administrator

This biography, written by Maureen Hickey, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Hanorah (Nora) Philomena FitzGibbon was born at Arrow Junction near Arrowtown, Otago, on 19 March 1889, the fourth of nine children of Mary Lynch and her husband, Edmond FitzGibbon, a farmer. While attending the convent at Arrowtown, Nora assisted in the education of her younger siblings and considered becoming a teacher. However, after going to St Patrick's School, Dunedin, at about the age of 16 she joined her sister, Mary, at Seacliff Mental Hospital, working as a nurse aide. She began a long association with the medical superintendent, Truby King, and his wife, Bella, developing an interest in their campaign to lower infant mortality.

In 1907 the Kings established the Karitane Home for Babies at Andersons Bay in Dunedin, and on the completion of a training period Nora FitzGibbon became the first Karitane nurse. In 1910 she did her general nursing training at Christchurch Hospital, having saved £1 a week for the uniform and fees while working as a Karitane nurse. She was registered in March 1913 and became a sister at Christchurch Hospital in 1914.

After the outbreak of the First World War Nora FitzGibbon was one of the first 12 New Zealand nurses to arrive in Egypt with government approval. They were officially attached to the Australian Army Nursing Service, on loan from the New Zealand government. FitzGibbon worked mainly at base hospitals there and in France and on an ambulance train, often close to the front line. Although the group was later called the 'Forgotten Twelve', because of their unusual status, FitzGibbon's distinguished war service was recognised in a handwritten note from King George V.

Returning to Christchurch Hospital in 1919, FitzGibbon worked as a theatre nurse. She completed her midwifery training in 1921 at the Essex Maternity Home, Christchurch. In 1925 she went back to Dunedin, undertaking three months' Plunket nursing training. She was appointed matron of the Karitane–Harris Hospital, Dunedin, in 1926 but resigned in 1927 and moved to Arrow Junction to care for her mother. During this time she set and marked exams for Karitane and Plunket nurses. Her mother died in 1930 and in 1931 FitzGibbon resumed her nursing career, becoming matron of the Karitane Hospital and Mothercraft Home, Auckland.

When conflict within the Plunket Society led to the resignation of Anne Pattrick from the position of director of Plunket nursing in 1934, Nora FitzGibbon was chosen as her successor, under the title of nursing adviser. While supporters of Pattrick argued that the name change indicated a devaluing of the nursing side of the society, the job description remained much the same. Based in Dunedin, for the next 10 years FitzGibbon travelled widely within New Zealand, visiting nurses and branches, in addition to providing nursing advice to the executive council and overseeing the placement of all Karitane and Plunket nurses. Her leadership style and nursing techniques owed much to Truby King's training.

After retiring in 1945, Nora FitzGibbon collaborated with Dr Helen Deem, medical adviser to the society, on Modern mothercraft, Plunket's new childcare manual. Close to 9,000 infants had been studied, and for the first time a standard growth curve for New Zealand infants was used. The manual became the Bible of New Zealand mothers over the next few decades and was revised and reprinted many times.

Nora FitzGibbon was known in nursing circles as 'a woman of clear vision and great ability'. In 1939 she was appointed an MBE, and from 1946 to 1949 she was president of the New Zealand Registered Nurses' Association, providing strong leadership and dedicated service. In addition to representing the association on many welfare and women's organisations, FitzGibbon travelled to London in 1948 to attend the meeting of the board of directors of the International Council of Nurses. She became an honorary life member of the association in 1962. She also held the position of honorary secretary of the New Zealand Nurses' Memorial Fund for 18 years.

Her commitment to the nursing profession combined with a strong Catholic faith led her to establish the Dunedin Catholic Nurses' Guild in September 1937, with the aim of promoting and defending Catholic moral principles in the nursing profession. FitzGibbon was first president of the Dunedin Branch and, in 1957, of the National Catholic Nurses' Guild. She represented the guild at international Catholic nurses' conferences.

In 1949 Bishop James Whyte asked FitzGibbon to set up a local branch of the Catholic Women's League of New Zealand and she became the first president in the Dunedin diocese. She travelled tirelessly to open branches and in 1970 was made the first diocesan life member. Through her work with the league, FitzGibbon became involved in the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association and was awarded a life membership of the Dunedin branch in 1977. She never married, and spent her final months at the Sacred Heart Home, Dunedin. She died there on 7 May 1979.

How to cite this page:

Maureen Hickey. 'FitzGibbon, Hanorah Philomena', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4f16/fitzgibbon-hanorah-philomena (accessed 13 July 2024)