Story: Dougherty, Ellen
Nurse, hospital matron
This biography was written by M. G. Openshaw and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993
Ellen Dougherty was born at Cutters Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand, on 20 September 1844, the daughter of Sarah McAuley and her husband, Daniel Dougherty. Her father had been a whaler for some years before establishing a whaling station at Port Underwood in the Marlborough Sounds. When Ellen was about five years old the family moved to Wellington, where Daniel Dougherty had been appointed harbour pilot. They lived in the pilot house at Palmer Head near Lyall Bay. Life at both Port Underwood and Palmer Head was rough and isolated. Ellen and the other children spent much of their time in boats and exploring the bush; all became accomplished horse-riders. Education was gained partly from reading their father's library, partly from their parents and a governess.
After her father's death in 1857, Ellen and her brothers and sisters were raised by their mother, who then ran a boarding house in Ghuznee Street, Wellington. Before training as a nurse it is thought that she worked with Charles Barraud in his Wellington pharmacy. From 1885 she was in the employ of the Wellington District Hospital; she completed a certificate in nursing in 1887 and studied elementary anatomy and physiology. She became head of the hospital's accident ward and also ran the surgery ward.
In 1893 Ellen Dougherty was acting matron at Wellington District Hospital; when passed over for the permanent position, she accepted a post as matron of Palmerston North Hospital. On arrival she discovered very little had been done in the way of providing basic materials for the hospital and money was scarce. Her first concern was to ensure a sufficient supply of linen. In the days before antibiotics, hospitals required large supplies of linen to help prevent infection. Her first major act on assuming her post was to organise sewing bees with her relatives to sew sheets, pillow-cases and bandages.
As matron, Ellen Dougherty had the assistance of two nursing staff, whom she brought with her from Wellington, and two part-time medical officers. The nurses worked 12-hour shifts, and extra hours at need. The job was demanding. Palmerston North was then a centre for the construction of the North Island's main trunk railway line, and for bush-clearing and saw-milling. Accidents were common and doctors not always available. Ellen Dougherty had to set broken limbs, dress wounds, and on occasions amputate an arm or a leg. She also ran the hospital's dispensary, often staying at work until after midnight. In 1899 she was formally registered as a pharmacist.
In September 1901 New Zealand became the first country to have separate legislation for the registration and regulation of nurses. When the Nurses Registration Act became law in January 1902, nurses who had already trained could apply to have their names entered on the register and first on the list was Ellen Dougherty. At her retirement in 1908, Palmerston North's hospital had grown to twice its original size in a period when she had had the chief administrative responsibility. Ellen Dougherty, who had never married, retired to Carterton, Wairarapa, to be near members of her family. She died there on 3 November 1919.