Story: Muir, Rose Caroline

Page 1: Biography

Muir, Rose Caroline

1884–1970

Nurse, matron

This biography, written by Patricia A. Sargison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.

Rose Caroline Muir was born in Blenheim on 12 January 1884, the daughter of Rose Dale and her husband, James Muir, engineer and later manager of the Municipal Gas Works. About 1906 she began nursing training at Wairau Hospital. She qualified as a registered nurse in July 1909 and was immediately appointed ward sister. The following year she moved to Christchurch Hospital as home sister, later becoming a ward sister.

Muir was one of many young nurses for whom the war brought opportunities for rapid advancement. In 1915 she replaced the sub-matron, who went on active service, and in 1916 she became acting matron, following Mabel Thurston's secondment to the New Zealand Military Hospital at Walton-on-Thames, England. This appointment was made permanent in 1919 when the North Canterbury Hospital and Charitable Aid Board declined to further extend Thurston's leave. They cited the 'undue sacrifice' being demanded of Muir, whose work was 'good without exception'. Muir herself was content to continue in an acting capacity and the board's controversial decision forced her to choose loyalty to her employer over her matron. She was to remain lady superintendent of the hospital until ill health brought her retirement in June 1936. She never married.

In a time of social, economic and scientific change, Muir sought to devise training programmes that would preserve the 'simple ideals of a true nurse' against the 'disastrous influences' of creeping materialism. Although she supported a university nursing course, she emphasised that this could not replace three years of practical hospital training. Only thus could the ethics of nursing be instilled, and adequate recognition be given to the needs of the patient, which must take precedence over all other concerns.

Following a study trip to America and Britain in 1922, and with the crucial support of the medical superintendent, Dr Walter Fox, Muir founded New Zealand's first preliminary training school in 1923. Two classes of probationers entered the hospital each year, their first three weeks being spent in the demonstration room with a specially qualified tutor sister. In August 1934 Christchurch became the first hospital to extend preliminary training to three months. This programme enabled nurses to complete theoretical work quickly before concentrating on the practical aspects of the course, and also improved patient care by giving nurses basic skills before they began ward work.

Concern for patient welfare also shaped Muir's attitude to improving nurses' work conditions. Initially critical of government proposals for a weekly holiday, she yielded to board pressure for one day off each fortnight in March 1923. She warned, however, that nurses would have to forfeit this 'privilege' in times of sickness or emergency, and that no concession could be made for attendance at lectures. Largely because of accommodation shortages, the weekly holiday was not regularly available until 1929, when Muir acknowledged that 'the result after all, is beneficial'.

Muir believed devotion and self-sacrifice could only be taught by maintaining strict discipline. Nursing-home rules remained severe, and Muir sought to ban both alcohol and smoking. A tall woman of 'commanding presence', many students were afraid of her, yet she was also 'much loved & respected' for the security, understanding and sympathy she offered. At the time of the inquiry into the death of Nurse Helen Jones from miliary tuberculosis in 1928, when the public and certain board members (notably Elizabeth McCombs) accused Muir of callousness and neglect, her staff expressed their faith in her care. This support enabled Muir to overcome her feeling of persecution and 'carry on with renewed strength and energy'.

Muir was an active member of the New Zealand Trained Nurses' Association, serving as honorary secretary (1916–19), on the executive committee (1924–36), and as president (1929–30). The Canterbury branch, of which she was vice president and president many times, honoured her with life membership on her retirement. In 1931 she was appointed to the Nurses and Midwives Registration Board, remaining a member until December 1936. She was also a foundation member of the Sunlight League of New Zealand, involved in health camp administration.

Muir's retirement was spent in Sydney, where she lived with her close friend and colleague Atherton Molineaux. Her name was not, however, forgotten. In 1937 she was one of ten nurses who were the first members of the profession to be appointed an MBE, and in 1940 Walter Fox donated a Rose Muir medal for outstanding nursing, commemorating the work of one who, he said, 'had raised the standard and maintained high nursing ideals' at Christchurch Hospital. In 1962 a large and enthusiastic group of her former students formed the Rose Muir Association. After Muir's death in Sydney on 12 May 1970, the association commissioned a stained glass window, aptly symbolising service and faith, as a memorial to their matron in the Nurses' Memorial Chapel.

Rose Muir tried to modernise her profession while maintaining its traditional 'true nursing spirit'. She achieved success through her own imposing personality and the close rapport she shared with her medical superior. For her the nurse was 'in the most elevating sense…the hand maiden of the surgeon', and her reforms aimed to fit them for this purpose.

How to cite this page:

Patricia A. Sargison. 'Muir, Rose Caroline', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 4, 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m66/muir-rose-caroline (accessed 21 July 2017)