Ellen Alma Rose was born in Riverton, Southland, on 27 April 1907 to Edward Thomas Rose, a Tasmanian labourer, and his Scottish wife, Janet Weatherstone Millar. Nell, as she was known, received her initial education at Riverton School before attending Southland Girls’ High School in Invercargill. At the age of 16, while on holiday in Lawrence, Central Otago, she became a clerk for a local coal and timber merchant. The administrative skills she learned during her five years in Lawrence would be put to good use later in her career.
Nell’s grandmother at Riverton had been a midwife, and she herself had always been interested in nursing. It was recognised as a suitable career at a time when there were few employment opportunities for women. In 1928 she returned to Invercargill and soon after began training at Southland Hospital. It was not for the faint hearted. The hours were long and days off were rare. For most of her life as a nurse she worked under these conditions, and never married.
Nell Rose graduated in 1931 and two years later began her maternity training at St Helens Hospital, Invercargill. In 1934, as the top graduate in the country, she undertook her midwifery training at St Helens, and in 1936 she successfully completed a recently established postgraduate course for nurses.
At Southland Hospital, Rosie – as she was known to her nursing colleagues – began to combine her administrative experience with her nursing acumen. With few staff and little money, hospitals expected senior nurses to carry out a wide range of duties. Rose’s tasks included ordering fruit, vegetables and other items, as well as dealing with commercial travellers for uniforms and linen. She also took responsibility for the health of the nurses themselves, who often suffered from disease, particularly tuberculosis.
With the building of the new Southland Hospital at Kew in Invercargill, Rose became responsible for ensuring that the 13 departments were ready before the first patients arrived on 20 March 1937. Over two years later she was working when the hospital was badly damaged by fire at night. All the patients were evacuated, and such was the efficiency of staff that breakfast was served on time in the morning.
During the Second World War Rose lectured tirelessly for the Red Cross, and was promoted to assistant matron by the Southland Hospital Board. Years of lecturing were eventually curtailed by a throat problem. From 1936 to 1945 she served on the executive council of the Southland branch of the New Zealand Registered Nurses’ Association.
In 1946 Rose became matron of Waipukurau Hospital in Hawke’s Bay. After years of war shortages the hospital was run down, but through her administrative ability and insistence on the highest standard of conduct she was able to revive it. Her efforts were rewarded in 1958 when she was appointed an MBE.
Rose returned to Invercargill in 1957 to retire, partly due to poor health. However, within two years she had returned to Southland Hospital for a year as a nursing supervisor. Then, seeking fresh challenges, with her colleague Ruth Lilico she developed an innovative nursing-based home-aid service which was designed to ease the burden of ill health for patients and their families. In 1973, after running the service for 14 years, she retired again, living quietly in her Duncraig Street house, and later in an Invercargill rest home, until her death there on 17 July 1996.
Nell Rose epitomised many nurses who found challenges and rewards in a state health system based on hierarchy, discipline, loyalty and accepted standards of practice. Hundreds remembered her guidance and stern but kindly care with affection, respect and gratitude.