Story: Lambie, Mary Isabel

Page 1 - Lambie, Mary Isabel

Lambie, Mary Isabel

1889–1971

Nurse, director of nursing

This biography was written by Jan Rodgers and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Mary Isabel Lambie was born in Christchurch on 26 October 1889, the eldest of five children of Margaret Sidey and her husband, George Lambie, a shipping agent. Her father was an elder of the Presbyterian church; her maternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. This background, with its stress on hard work and education, influenced Mary Lambie deeply.

Her early childhood years, seemingly happy, were spent in Christchurch. However, Christchurch West School, selected by her grandfather, took its toll, and at one point Mary and her brother suffered a breakdown. They recovered after a year without schooling and a second year spent at home with a governess. Mary then attended Mrs Bowen's school in Christchurch and Christchurch Girls' High School.

Mary Lambie intended to enter university and then study medicine. She successfully passed matriculation and the preliminary examination for medical school, but when her father retired as manager of the Christchurch branch of the Union Steam Ship Company, a university scholarship became the only way she could realise her ambition. Her mother then became ill and Mary terminated her education to return home and care for her and her younger sisters. After a year her mother's health improved, but realising that she would now have little opportunity to enter university, Lambie decided to become a nurse.

In early 1909 she worked at a private hospital in Christchurch, and in November 1910 commenced training at Christchurch Hospital. The need to equip trainee nurses with medical knowledge was increasingly being recognised, and Lambie was to devote much of her later career to improving nursing education. In December 1913 she qualified as a nurse and began practising, also at Christchurch Hospital.

In 1914 she was again called home to care for her mother, now dying. After Margaret Lambie's death, early in October, Mary continued to provide a home for six young foster children her mother had been caring for, as well as her youngest sister and her ailing father. The next four years, though fraught with difficulties, provided Lambie with the strength of character she showed later in life. In 1916 her brother died in a shooting accident and one year later her father died. In 1918 the foster children were withdrawn from her care.

Mary Lambie was now able to return to nursing, this time with the school medical service. Although based in south Christchurch, she also visited rural schools, supervising the health of primary school children and advising mothers on nutrition, cooking and sewing. She learned the importance of educating them on the prevention of illness and disease. Lambie also assisted with collecting data on the extent of enlarged thyroid glands in Christchurch; this research led to the discovery of iodine deficiency as an important cause of goitre, and the subsequent introduction of iodised salt throughout New Zealand. She trained as a Plunket nurse in Dunedin in 1924.

In 1925–26 Lambie completed a one-year course in public health at the University of Toronto. This was to have prepared her for appointment, along with Janet Moore, as lecturer in a diploma in nursing at the University of Otago. A dispute over responsibility for the payment of salaries meant that the course was abandoned in 1926 before Lambie could take up her position. Instead, she undertook 10 months' midwifery training at St Helens Hospital, Wellington.

Lambie was soon selected for a senior post with the Department of Health, where she came under the influence of the director of the Division of Nursing, Jessie Bicknell. Her duties included a survey of health conditions in Taranaki, the East Coast and North Auckland and starting refresher courses for nurses working in the school and district nursing services. These courses led to the establishment in 1928 of a six-month postgraduate programme for registered nurses wishing to specialise in hospital administration and teaching or public health nursing. Lambie was one of the two instructors.

Mary Lambie's direct involvement with postgraduate nursing education was short lived. In February 1931 she organised an emergency hospital at Napier following the disastrous earthquake. She was then appointed to succeed Jessie Bicknell as director of the Division of Nursing. Coping with a shortage of nurses caused by funding cuts during the depression, Lambie set about further improving the quality of nursing education. She emphasised preventive medicine – a legacy of her years in Christchurch – and worked to include maternity training in nursing courses. She also instituted a move away from purely hospital-based tuition: a short preliminary course was begun, and new programmes were developed. Lambie also implemented the training of nurse aids as ancillary staff and encouraged the employment of dietitians in hospitals.

One effect of the 1938 Social Security Act was increased demand for hospital beds. The consequent staff shortages were exacerbated by the exodus of nurses overseas during the Second World War. Lambie responded to these new problems with determination and vigour. Untrained staff assisted in hospitals, while members of the New Zealand Women's Army Auxiliary Corps went overseas to supplement the number of army nurses. Lambie also chaired the committee formed to select nurses for the New Zealand Army Nursing Service.

The New Zealand nursing profession was led into the post-war years by a woman of vision. Lambie developed the training of new groups of health professionals – dietitians, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and hospital-based social workers. She fought doctors to retain midwifery training, helped expand the public health nursing service, and supported Maori Women's Health Leagues. She also expanded New Zealand's international nursing connections. Her time in Canada in 1925 had set in place friendships with nurses who were, by the 1940s, in positions of seniority. In 1937 a Rockefeller Foundation travelling fellowship allowed her to travel to the United States, Canada, Britain and Europe and to consolidate these connections. In 1946 Lambie was appointed president of the Florence Nightingale International Foundation, and in 1947 she was selected as 1st vice president of the International Council of Nurses. As director of nursing she oversaw services in Western Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands and served on the South Pacific Board of Health from 1945 to 1949.

Mary Lambie retired from nursing in 1950 and was appointed a CBE. She remained actively involved in the International Council of Nurses, was a member of an advisory committee to the World Health Organisation, and retained her membership of the New Zealand Registered Nurses' Association. In retirement she found an interest in entertaining and cooking. In 1960 Lambie suffered a severe stroke and was thenceforth cared for by two of her sisters. On 22 January 1971 she died at Christchurch. She had never married.

Mary Lambie was an able and energetic director and reformer of New Zealand nursing. Her desire to improve the standard of nursing education and her determination to obtain what she wanted caused some colleagues to regard her as dogmatic or difficult to work with. Others, impressed by her ability to combine vision with practical common sense, regarded her as the 'strongest "man" ' in the department. Her innovation helped shape the future of New Zealand nursing.