Many of us have some significant historical figures in our family, if you look back at your family tree far enough. One such significant individual in my family is my great-great-great Aunt Ellen Dougherty, who was the first registered nurse in New Zealand. I was lucky that I was able to glean a lot of information from a family book that was published in 2000, but there are plenty of resources available at Wellington City Libraries such as the Ancestry or Find My Past databases, which can help you with your own family research.
Ellen’s Early Life
Ellen Dougherty was born on 20 September 1844 at Port Underwood, the fourth child of Daniel and Sarah Dougherty. At the age of four, Ellen’s family moved to Palmer Head near Lyall Bay in Wellington, following her father’s appointment as the pilot of Wellington Harbour. Daniel Dougherty died when Ellen was 13, and it was after this that the family moved into Wellington.
Nursing Training and Career
Ellen started her nursing life as a probationer nurse in private nursing, and studied at the Wellington Mechanics Institute. Alongside this, she worked with the chemist Charles Decimus Barraud at his shop on Lambton Beach.
Ellen Dougherty was 41 when she began her training at Wellington Hospital in 1885. Within two years of beginning her studies, Ellen had earned certificates in nursing and senior anatomy, passing with distinction. She became head of Wellington hospital’s accident ward and also ran the surgery ward. Ellen was also a member of the Royal Nurses Institute of Great Britain.
In 1893 Ellen was acting matron at Wellington District Hospital. Her role was not made permanent however, so she then moved to Palmerston North Hospital where she was appointed as matron. Life as a matron was very busy. Some of the duties involved: reporting to the doctors, performing emergency amputations when no doctors were available, working until midnight at times as a pharmacist in the dispensary and supervising nursing staff, domestic workers, the cook and grounds people. Ellen was also in charge of the daily records, finances, food buying and storage, linen, patient fees and clothing. The wages for the matron role were £100 a year, and the hospital had 30 beds. In 1899 Ellen Dougherty became qualified as a pharmacist.
First Registered Nurse in New Zealand and Later Life
New Zealand became the first country in the world to have separate legislation for the registration and regulation of nurses in September 1901. The Nurses Registration Act came into law on January 1902, and the first name entered on the registration list was Ellen Dougherty. Ellen retired in 1908, by which time Palmerston North Hospital had grown to twice its original size from when she first started as matron. Ellen moved to Carterton for her retirement, to be closer to family following a stint overseas from 1909-1913. She never married, but had a suitor, said to be James McMenamen, who pursued Ellen for a number of decades. His last proposal to her was when she was aged sixty-five. Ellen died in Carterton on 3 November 1919 aged 75.