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Story: Macdonald, Sadie

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Macdonald, Sadie


Nurse, community leader

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

Sadie Murn was born in Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia, on 3 July 1886. She was subsequently registered as Sarah, but always known as Sadie. Her parents were Sarah Jane Stuart and her husband, John Murn, a miner. Little is known about her early years, but she eventually trained as a nurse at the Balmain and District and Royal Prince Alfred hospitals in Sydney. In 1912 she came to nurse in New Zealand, where she met William Marshall Macdonald, a prominent Dunedin doctor. Sadie and Marshall were married on 26 February 1913 in a Presbyterian ceremony at Drummoyne, Sydney, before returning to Dunedin. Their first son was born in December that year.

Within the Macdonald family it was believed that the handsome, well-connected Marshall had married hastily and beneath himself. Supposedly common and pushy, Sadie began the marriage at a disadvantage in her husband's circle. She did little to improve her standing when she accompanied Marshall to France in 1915, leaving her small son at home. Excluded from the British army nursing service because she was married, Sadie joined the American Field Service in Paris, transferring to the United States Army Nurse Corps later in the war. It was unusual enough for a married woman to be working under these circumstances, let alone the mother of a small child.

She returned with her husband to New Zealand in 1919. In November 1920 she gave birth to their second son. Once again, motherhood did not restrict her activities, though she now expiated her unorthodox wartime activities through good works, becoming a figure of note within the Dunedin voluntary sector. She served on the Otago Hospital Board (1921–27 and 1929–33); for two years as the provincial commissioner of the Otago Girl Guides Provincial Association; and as patron of the New Zealand Junior Red Cross Society, vice president of the Otago Basketball Association, and a member of the Plunket Society. She was an executive member of the women's section of the 1925–26 New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition. When women throughout New Zealand led a campaign in support of a chair of obstetrics at Otago University, she was secretary and treasurer of the Otago fund-raising committee.

In all of these causes Macdonald was no passive member. Her role usually involved leadership and the cajoling of others into new enterprises. When Dunedin Hospital was short-staffed through illness in 1928, she organised voluntary nursing staff. She was instrumental in having the Otago Hospital Board co-operate with the St John Ambulance Brigade in beginning a hospital hostess service. During the depression she ran the board's Dowling Street relief depot where, it is said, she treated the recipients of aid with more humanity than did her counterparts in other relief depots.

One incident gained her a certain amount of notoriety. While more genteel Dunedin ladies served on the local women's unemployment committee, training young women for domestic tasks, Macdonald inserted an advertisement in a local paper in 1931 pretending to be a servant seeking work. She then described her experiences to the press: the lack of genuine work and the treatment she received from potential employers in beautifully kept homes. It was not a tactic likely to endear her to matrons of Dunedin's upper echelon. When the Unemployment Board placed her on a national committee to consider women's unemployment, the Dunedin Women's Unemployment Committee indignantly but ineffectually protested the appointment.

However, the achievement which gained Macdonald an OBE in 1938 was the establishment of the Waikouaiti children's health camp. Prior to the opening of the first camp in January 1933 she badgered a variety of voluntary and government organisations for support, arranged to use the Waikouaiti race ground and buildings, and helped school doctors recruit suitable children. She then, in full nurse's uniform, functioned as on-the-spot commander of the camp.

As the children's health camp movement became more institutionalised over the 1930s and 1940s, Macdonald remained a major force within its ranks. Even though she shifted with her family to Wellington in 1933, she served on the movement's Dunedin central council as well as on the advisory committee of its national body, the King George V Memorial Fund Board. She was not dislodged from the Dunedin central council until 1952, when members took advantage of her absence to complain about the cost of bringing her from Wellington, and about this forceful character's ability to turn meetings into 'one continuous squabble'. Soon after this she was given an opportunity to retire from the council with her dignity intact.

The Macdonalds moved back to Dunedin in March 1956. Marshall Macdonald died in August that year, and Sadie spent part of her widowhood travelling overseas before her own death in Dunedin on 12 May 1966. She was survived by her two sons.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant. 'Macdonald, Sadie', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m7/macdonald-sadie (accessed 7 June 2023)