Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


NEILL, Elizabeth Grace

(1846–1926).

Journalist, social reformer, and nurse.

A new biography of Neill, Elizabeth Grace appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Elizabeth Grace Neill was born on 26 May 1846 in Edinburgh. Her father was James Archibald Campbell, one-time colonel of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and later, on his retirement, deputy lieutenant of the county of Argyllshire and colonel of militia in that area. Grace Campbell was the eldest daughter of nine children by his second wife, Maria Grace, née Cameron, of Barcaldine. She was brought up in a household where disciplined intelligence was valued and received her formal education partly at home and partly at a private school in Rugby. She had a brilliant mind and would undoubtedly have done well if her father had consented to her studying medicine but his disapproval fortunately resulted in her becoming a “paying probationer” nurse in the St. John's House Sisterhood in London which supplied staff both for the King's College and for Charing Cross Hospitals. Grace Campbell completed her training in general nursing and midwifery and then was appointed lady superintendent at the Pendlebury Hospital for Children, near Manchester, where she remained for two years until she married Dr Channing Neill. For a short period they lived in Ryde, in the Isle of Wight, where her only son, J. O. C. Neill, was born.

In 1886, Grace Neill and her four-year-old boy joined Dr Neill in Australia where he had established a practice. When her husband died in 1888 she turned to journalism to earn a living and was for a time sub-editor of the Boomerang and a freelance journalist for the Brisbane Daily Telegraph and the Courier. In 1891 she was appointed by the Queensland Government to a Royal Commission on working conditions for shop and factory workers. It was her knowledge of the problems inherent in the giving of charitable aid, combined with her work as a journalist, which ultimately led to her appointment in 1893 as the first woman Inspector of Factories in New Zealand. In 1894 she again served on a Royal Commission to inquire into the Administration of Charitable Aid in Canterbury. This was followed by her appointment as Assistant Inspector in the Department in charge of hospitals, asylums, and charitable aid, which was headed at that time by Dr Duncan McGregor. When Dr Frank Hay was appointed as first assistant in this Department and a separate Department of Health was established, Grace Neill was able to devote herself to providing a suitable nursing service for New Zealand.

At this time, Mrs Neill, tall, redheaded, and unconventional, had conceived the idea of a register for trained nurses, which would protect the public and the profession from malpractice by unqualified persons. In 1901 the Bill which she helped Dr McGregor to draft was passed by Parliament and became the first Nurses' Registration Act in the world. This Bill provided for a three-year course of training, a State examination, and a State register for nurses. While this led to registration for general trained nurses, the position of midwives was still anomalous. It was imperative that a means of training midwives in New Zealand be established and that they should also be registered. Accordingly, the Midwives' Registration Act was introduced to Parliament by Richard Seddon in 1904 and was passed almost without amendment, which was a triumph in view of the opposition at that time from such organisations as the British Medical Association. Seddon then initiated the setting up of the first State maternity hospital which was intended to serve both as a “lying-in” hospital for the wives of the working class and as a training school for midwives. Grace Neill was given three weeks in which to find and equip a suitable house and the first hospital opened in Rintoul Street, Wellington, in June 1905. It was called St. Helen's Hospital, after Seddon's birthplace in Lancashire, England. This was followed by the opening of St. Helen's Hospitals in Dunedin (1905), Auckland (1906), and Christchurch (1907). These hospitals have since played an important part in the development of care for maternity patients.

Mrs Neill's activities during her period in office were not confined only to New Zealand. In 1899 she attended a Congress of the International Council of Women in London, where she was principal speaker in the nursing section. At this congress she was made an honorary member of the Matrons' Council of Great Britain, and subsequently served on a committee which drafted the constitution and bylaws for the International Council of Nurses. In 1901 her specialised knowledge of social conditions again proved useful when she investigated the administration of charitable aid in Sydney for the Government of New South Wales. At the end of 1906 she resigned her position with the New Zealand Government and joined her son in the United States but her health, which had been poor for some time, did not improve and they both returned to New Zealand in 1909. During the First World War she was sister in charge of the Children's Ward at Wellington Hospital. She died after a long period of illness on 18 August 1926. In memory of her services to the people of New Zealand, and to the nurses in particular, the Grace Neill Memorial Library was established at the Nurses' Postgraduate School in Wellington.

Grace Neill was essentially a social reformer. Her early upbringing had trained her to be independent and broadminded and these qualities she brought to bear on the social problems of her day both in New Zealand and in Australia. She was deeply interested in women's suffrage, and her ideas on the evils of indiscriminate relief to the poor were far in advance of those of her contemporaries. The reports that she wrote when Inspector of Factories give a succinct picture of the poor working conditions at that time and must have contributed to the subsequent social reforms which took place. She estimated the needs of New Zealand in terms of nursing service and was largely responsible for the legislation which protected the public from malpractice and at the same time laid a sound foundation for the subsequent development of nurses as a professional group.

by Nancy Joan Kinross, B.A.(N.Z.), M.SC.(BERKLEY), N.Z.DIP.NURSING, Supervising Matron, Southland Hospital, Invercargill.

  • Historical Development of Nursing in New Zealand, 1840–1946, New Zealand Department of Health (1947)
  • Grace Neill, Neill, J. O. C. (1961)
  • The New Zealand Nursing Journal, 15 Jun 1946, “Grace Neill”, Campbell, Helen.


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