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Early 20th century untrained nursing staff in the Rockhampton district: a necessary evil?


Wendy Madsen,
School of Nursing and Health Studies,
Central Queensland University,
Locked Bag 3333,
Bundaberg DC,
Queensland 4670,


Aim.  This paper explores the role of untrained nursing staff within the nursing services of the Rockhampton region, Queensland, Australia, throughout the early 20th century. It details who these nurses were, where they worked and how their work was affected by factors such as legislation and social changes.

Background.  Despite the increasing prevalence of trained nurses from the late 19th century, nurses who had never undergone any formal training continued to gain work in hospitals, institutions and their local communities.

Method.  This paper is an historical analysis of a wide range of primary source material relating to untrained nursing staff. The primary source material used related specifically to a limited geographical region in Australia.

Findings.  Untrained nursing staff primarily worked as private duty nurses at the beginning of the 20th century. However, as the century progressed, their opportunities to work as untrained nursing staff tended towards institutions dealing with the chronically ill and the aged. As a result of this transition, their profile altered from that of a married/widowed woman living at home with dependents to one who could live on-site at the institution with no dependents. Furthermore, the level of autonomy of the untrained nurse decreased dramatically throughout this period from being relatively independent to being under the control of a trained nurse within the institution.

Conclusion.  Consideration of the historical evolution of untrained nursing staff challenges some of the assumptions made about this category of nurse, assumptions that can affect current relationships between professional nurses and others who undertake nursing work.