Osburn, Lucy (1835–1891)

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Osburn, Lucy (1835–1891)

British nurse universally admired as "Australia's Florence Nightingale." Born in Leeds, England, on May 10, 1835; died of diabetes in Harrogate, England, on December 22, 1891; daughter of William Osburn and Ann (Rimington) Osburn; had a sister Ann; studied at the Nightingale Training School of Nursing attached to London's St. Thomas' Hospital, graduating in September 1867; studied midwifery at King's College Hospital; never married; no children.

Against family's wishes, studied nursing in London; chosen by Florence Nightingale to introduce her nursing principles to Australia (1868); despite her own poor health, transformed the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary into a model institution; resigned her position (1884) because of declining health, returning to England where she continued to minister to the indigent sick.

Lucy Osburn was an enthusiastic traveler in an age when most women rarely left their hometowns; she accompanied her father William Osburn, a respected Egyptologist, on several of his research trips to the land of the Nile. From childhood on, Lucy suffered from chest infections and bronchitis during the foul British winter months, and spent many winters in milder climes working as an unpaid secretary for her father. Unmarried and in her mid-20s, Osburn surprised her family when she announced that she wished to take up nursing as a career. Unaware of the changes that Florence Nightingale had succeeded in bringing about in British hospitals, William opposed her plans as completely unsuitable for his intelligent, cultivated daughter. Prior to Nightingale's reforms, the lowly and low-paying task of nursing in filthy and overcrowded public hospitals had often fallen by default to women who were—by reason of ignorance, incapacity or alcohol—unable to find other work.

The inheritance of a small legacy gave Osburn a degree of independence that made it possible for her to defy her father. In 1866, she enrolled in the Nightingale Training School of Nursing attached to London's prestigious St. Thomas' Hospital. Here she gained valuable experience working in both men's and women's surgical, medical, and accident wards. Impressed by Nightingale's insistence on "hygienic principles" which saw hospitals not as filthy places where the poor went only to suffer and die, but as institutions where skill and compassion could restore many to health and allow the moribund to die in dignity, Osburn quickly developed into a skilled, no-nonsense medical professional. Determined to become a nurse, she remained steadfast despite the fact that her father had turned her portrait to the wall. Fortunately, Osburn could rely on the emotional support of her sister Ann , a teacher who dreamed of leaving the oppressive Osburn home and founding a school based on modern, progressive principles.

After graduating from her training course in September 1867, Osburn had earned the title of Sister Osburn, one of "Miss Nightingale's nurses." She promptly continued her education by studying midwifery at another major teaching hospital in London, King's College Hospital. In 1867, the government of the Australian state of New South Wales appealed to Nightingale for trained nurses to staff the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary. Osburn was invited to apply for the job of Lady Superintendent at this hospital, known locally as either the Old Sydney Hospital or the Rum Hospital, so-called because it had been built decades earlier with a levy raised on the sale of rum. Osburn was expected to establish a training school in New South Wales based on Nightingale's principles.

Along with five other nursing sisters, Osburn arrived in Sydney Cove on March 1868, after a long and typically uncomfortable voyage. Wearing their white starched caps and nurse's uniforms, they were greeted by cheering crowds lining the Circular Quay and Macquarie Street. Lucy, slim, pretty, and well educated, quickly enchanted the New South Wales colonial secretary Sir Henry Parkes, who had requested the nurses and through whose efforts an Act requiring hospitals to be inspected had recently been passed by the provincial legislature. Within a week of their arrival, however, ceremonial pleasantries would be replaced by a full-blown medical emergency. After the visiting duke of Edinburgh had been shot and wounded by a mentally unbalanced man named Henry James O'Farrell, Lucy Osburn was called on to supervise the successful nursing back to health of the convalescent duke.

Sydney Hospital on Macquarie Street dated back to 1816, and Osburn soon realized the immensity of the work she faced. Shown around the long building with wide verandas, she and the other nurses were horrified to learn that there was no running water, that the hospital's

wards were swarming with vermin, and that the kitchens were "thick with grease." Roaches could be seen in the patients' bandages. The stench in the wards was overpowering, the result of filth, neglect and poor ventilation. The terrible odor of the facility was a combination of makeshift latrines, open sewers, and the putrefying flesh of patients who, covered with bedsores, lay neglected by the staff on mattresses that were rotting from urine and fecal matter. At night, huge black rats roamed at will, running across patients' beds, even invading the mortuary and gnawing on corpses. Osburn was appalled, and several of her nurses were physically ill after their initial exposure to the conditions.

Although she and her nurses had been promised quarters in a new nurses' residence, this facility was not yet finished. Consequently, they had to live in damp, dirty rooms in the already overcrowded hospital. Despite Osburn's weak constitution and an attack of dysentery which laid her low for two months, bringing on frequent vomiting attacks in April and May 1868 (but which, typically, she made light of in her letters to Nightingale), she was determined to reform the hospital and acted swiftly to impose discipline on the staff. The hospital's "nurses" were underpaid and had few if any qualifications for their various jobs. Some had been cleaners, unimpressive to behold, with unwashed hair and bawdy vocabularies. Some, Osburn suspected, supplemented their incomes as prostitutes while others picked up a few shillings by smuggling alcohol to patients. Often, the "nurses" became drunk alongside their patients, even having sex with them. Despite this, by December 1868, Osburn had been able to train 16 nurses.

The obstacles she faced were at times so huge that she felt total isolation. She was opposed by the hospital's visiting surgeon, Sir Alfred Roberts, although he had been instrumental in prodding Parkes to contact Nightingale. On a visit to London, Roberts discovered that Nightingale had received unfavorable letters about Osburn from two of her nurses, Bessie Chant and Annie Miller . The reason for Miller's displeasure was clear: she had been disciplined by Osburn for allowing a married house surgeon to visit her bedroom at night, and she feared reprisals from his wife if the incident should become known. On his return to Sydney, Roberts spread rumors that Nightingale was disappointed with Osburn's work. Fortunately, Osburn had found a champion in Parkes, who wrote her that Roberts was "a respectable professional man … but he is … a fusy [sic], officious diletente [sic] in all matters of sanitary reform, who spoils his own efforts to be useful by his desire to be the authority on all occasions." Roberts believed in the necessity of medical reforms, but he found it hard to believe that these changes might come from a "mere nurse" like Lucy Osburn.

Further opposition to Osburn's reform efforts came from one of her own nurses, Sister Haldane Colquhoun Turriff . Capable and talented as well as caustic and controlling, Turriff saw herself as Osburn's successor and wrote negative letters to Nightingale in the hope that Osburn would be dismissed and she would replace her. When the nurses' three-year contracts came up for renewal in 1870, Turriff was not recommended for a new contract by Osburn who, with Nightingale, had been alienated by her actions. Turriff continued her career as first matron at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital, where she was successful enough that even her critics had to concede that her nurses were the best in that city.

Even with Turriff's departure, many difficulties remained. Medicine at this time was an exclusively male profession; there were no female physicians in the wards who could support Osburn. Thus, she had to depend on male doctors for help in her reform efforts, and many of them supported Roberts, whose main goal appeared to be one of sabotaging the Osburn agenda. This included refusing to write essential information about a patient's condition on the chart that hung at the end of each bed. When Osburn tried to hold lectures for trainee nurses, Roberts or one of his medical colleagues would arrive unexpectedly and demand that the nurses return to their ward duties or prepare patients for surgery.

Even the most innocent incidents could turn into nasty confrontations. When Osburn ordered a staff member to burn a roach-infested box of moldy books that included some pages torn from an old Bible, the event was, as she recounted, "magnified into a systematic and determined burning of Bibles on my part." In this instance, the deliberate distortion was spread by Sister Annie Miller. Once the garbled Bibleburning story appeared in print in the Protestant Standard, a legislative subcommittee was hastily convened to judge Osburn's actions. After six weeks of deliberations and political posturing, she was cleared of all charges. Despite these incidents, Osburn refused to bow to pressure. Indeed, Sir Henry Parkes and others in public life became increasingly impressed by her.

Growing discontent with the slow pace of change at the hospital, which many now laid at the door of Osburn's corrupt and incompetent superiors, led in 1873 to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly appointing a Royal Commission of Inquiry. Much information was gathered during the commission's life, which examined 59 witnesses, including Osburn. Further inquiries took place that same year when the Royal Commission on Public Charities was convened under the chair of Judge Sir William Charles Windeyer. Although Roberts presented evidence that Osburn had failed in her duties, Judge Windeyer, a strong advocate of social reforms, was not convinced. He was likely strengthened in his determination to back Osburn because of the resolve of his remarkable wife, Lady Mary Windeyer . One of Australia's women's rights pioneers, in 1895 Mary Windeyer founded the Women's Hospital of Sydney. She was also president of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales and played leadership roles in the Women's Industrial Exhibition of 1888, and in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of New South Wales. In the Royal Commission's final report, written by Judge Windeyer, Osburn was strongly vindicated. The report presented the public with incontrovertible evidence of Sydney Hospital's "horrible" conditions. The Commission accused the politicians of the House Committee of "utter neglect" of the situation, and accused those in charge of the institution of having made every major managerial error Nightingale warned against. Beside praising Osburn for the "vast improvement in the nursing services," the commisson also gave her a raise.

In the public indignation that followed the release of the report, Superintendent John Blackstone was fired. With his departure, it became easier for Osburn's reforms to be implemented from the ground up. Slowly, the Sydney Hospital under Osburn's leadership became a model institution. Osburn was now officially in charge of wards and patients, as well as cooking and domestic staffs. With each passing year, higher levels of professionalism were attained. Personally, Osburn forged strong bonds of friendship with Lady Windeyer and her daughter, Osburn's namesake Lucy Windeyer , as well as with Emily Macarthur and her daughter Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow . However, despite her professional achievements in Australia, which had laid the strong foundations of one of the best nursing systems in the world, Osburn increasingly longed to return to England, particularly in order to see her sister Ann again. In 1884, with reforms firmly in place, she resigned her post. By this time, Osburn had been diagnosed with diabetes, a life-threatening illness in this time before the discovery of insulin.

Arriving in London, she sought the best medical advice, hoping she could one day return to Australia. By 1886, her iron will had enabled her to bring her illness under control, and in that year she began working as an underpaid district nurse among the sick poor of London's Bloomsbury district. Once again displaying remarkable powers of concentration despite fragile health, she remained the workaholic she had always been and so advanced to the position of Superintendent of the Southwark, Newington and Walworth District Nursing Association. Although she still spoke of returning to far-off Australia, Osburn's diabetic condition grew worse with each passing year, and her physicians advised her not to undertake such strenuous travel. She became frailer, and increasingly suffered from fainting attacks. On December 1891, while visiting her sister Ann's boarding school, Dunorlan, in Harrogate, Lucy Osburn died of complications of diabetes. She was 56 years old. From the funds she had left behind in New South Wales, Osburn bequeathed £100 to young Lucy Windeyer. Australians continue to honor the determined woman who brought the ideals of modern nursing, the reforms of Florence Nightingale, to what was then a remote outpost of the British Empire.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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