The elder of twin girls, Flora Jean Cameron was born on Christmas Eve 1902 at Richmond, near Nelson, to Ruth Anne Knight and her husband, James Cameron, a police constable. The family later moved to Lower Hutt, where Flora attended Hutt District High School. After working as a shorthand writer in the Post and Telegraph Department, she trained as a nurse between 1925 and 1929 at Christchurch Hospital. During 1931 she undertook training in maternity nursing at Holmdale Maternity Hospital, Blenheim, then did midwifery training at St Helens Hospital, Auckland, gaining registration as a midwife in 1932.
Flora Cameron began her career working as a private hospital and private duty nurse in Lower Hutt and Wanganui, and as a midwife in Lower Hutt and at St Helens Hospital, Wellington. After further study she completed the postgraduate course for nurses in 1934. Over the next four years she worked as a district health nurse in Wanganui, where she made a significant contribution to the control of communicable disease and the health of mothers and babies. Her skills and potential were recognised by Mary Lambie, the director of the Division of Nursing in the Department of Health, who arranged for Cameron to take a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and study public health and hospital social science at the University of Toronto in 1938.
From Canada, Cameron went to England and Scotland to observe hospital services. At the outbreak of war in 1939 she was working at a maternity hospital near London. On returning to New Zealand in October she was appointed a nurse instructor at the postgraduate school for nurses in Wellington. There she taught public health and medical social work courses to registered nurses preparing for leadership positions in public health nursing, administration and teaching. Cameron was remembered for her lively personality and the clarity of her lectures.
After 10 years at the school she was appointed in 1949 to a newly created position as deputy director of nursing in the Department of Health. When Lambie’s successor, Elizabeth Bridges, retired in August 1950, Flora Cameron was appointed director of nursing, a position she held until her retirement in 1962. As director, she was also the registrar of the Nurses and Midwives Board, which administered the legislation governing the training, registration and discipline of nurses and midwives.
It was in these positions that Cameron drove through changes that had far-reaching implications for nursing in New Zealand. Perhaps the most significant was the implementation in 1957 of a new curriculum incorporating maternity nursing into the general training course for women nurses. In the same year, legislation was passed enabling nurses to be registered a year earlier, at age 20, a strategy to improve recruitment of school-leavers. In the late 1950s Cameron advocated university education for those registered nurses considering leadership roles in teaching, administration and research. Although papers in nursing were not offered at university until 1973, she laid the groundwork for this development. However, despite promoting teaching methods that encouraged nurses to think and act independently, she discouraged them from speaking out about the realities and drudgery of nursing lest they harmed recruitment.
Cameron also worked at a local level through the branches of the New Zealand Registered Nurses’ Association. The president of the Wellington branch in the late 1950s later remembered the ‘awful lot of homework’ Cameron made the members do to become knowledgeable about university education before their annual conference. Cameron also participated for many years on national committees of the NZRNA.
The contribution she made to New Zealand nursing was matched by a strong interest in Pacific island health and nursing issues. A member of the South Pacific Board of Health, she first visited Rarotonga, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji in 1950 with Harold Turbott, the deputy director of health, and she took a leading role in introducing the New Zealand nurse training curriculum to Fiji. She was involved with the International Council of Nurses, and represented New Zealand at its congresses in Rio de Janeiro (1953), Rome (1957) and Melbourne (1961). At the Melbourne meeting she was elected chairman of the council’s education committee. She attended the 1955 Australian Nursing Congress in Melbourne and was invited by the New South Wales College of Nursing to present the Tenth Annual Oration in 1962; she spoke on nursing care quality.
Flora Cameron never married. Outside her professional life she was involved in many community organisations and enjoyed playing bowls. She served for several years on the New Zealand Junior Red Cross Council, and was the government representative on both the New Zealand Red Cross Society Dominion Council and the Maori Women’s Welfare League. She was awarded the Coronation Medal in 1953, made an OBE in 1954, and received the Florence Nightingale Medal from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1959. The following year she was made an officer of the Order of St John.
Flora Cameron died suddenly from a heart attack on 13 January 1966 in Lower Hutt. She had been one of New Zealand’s outstanding nursing leaders.