Matron Hester MacLean’s story is one of outstanding leadership in difficult times and makes up one of over 30 wonderful stories and period costumes in the National Army Museum’s latest exhibition, Women of Empire 1914-1918 currently on display in the Freyberg and Thornton galleries..
At the urging of her friend, Dr Agnes Bennett, Hester MacLean applied for and secured the post of Assistant Inspector of Hospitals in New Zealand in 1906, becoming Director of the division of nursing. Born in 1859 on the NSW goldfields, she began nursing training in Sydney in 1889, and had held a variety of senior posts in both Sydney and Melbourne. She helped form the New Zealand Trained Nurses’ Association, launched the nursing journal Kai Tiaki in 1908 and in 1911 was appointed matron-in-chief of the proposed military nursing reserve, subsequently the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS).
When war was declared, Hester overcame fierce opposition to having nurses serve overseas – she escorted the first contingent of 50 nurses to Egypt in April 1915, battling to make order of chaos, in the face of difficult, disagreeable and dismissive doctors and army ‘brass’. She reluctantly returned to New Zealand where she was needed to take charge of a military and civilian hospital system starved of staffing. During the 1918 and 1919 influenza epidemics, she worked tirelessly, acting as Chief Medical Officer.
She was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1917 and the Florence nightingale Medal in 19120. Hester MacLean retired in 1923 but continued to edit and promote nursing through Kai Tiaki until her death in Wellington in 1932.