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Matron legacy strong as medals go 'home' to Royal Melbourne

JANE Bell still casts a stern figure as she peers down from her portrait at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

JANE Bell still casts a stern figure as she peers down from her portrait at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

As principal matron of the 1st Australian General Army Hospital in Egypt during World War I, Miss Bell clashed with the military establishment when she sought to retain control of the army nurses.

She returned unsuccessful to the Melbourne hospital, where she was director of nursing from 1910-1934. But her stance was later vindicated when the army's medical service was reorganised to establish a separate command structure for nurses.

Today Miss Bell's portrait hangs in the hospital's historical room and few nurses would be unaware of her legacy, which included developing formal training and registration for nurses.

So it was under her watchful gaze that Miss Bell's great-nephew, Doug Steindl, this week returned her military service medals and OBE to the hospital and its nurses.

Miss Bell established the hospital's graduate nurses association in 1917, and Mr Steindl said he had long wanted to return the items to the hospital "where they belong" to ensure their safekeeping.

Also returned to the hospital was a silver tea service presented to Miss Bell on her retirement, which is likely to be included in a future display of memorabilia connected to the nursing pioneer.

Mr Steindl inherited the items from his aunt, who held her aunt Miss Bell in great esteem. He said he came to fully appreciate Miss Bell's achievements after reading a biography commissioned by the association in 1988.

"I knew she was a great woman but that opened my eyes. You ladies have vindicated everything she set out to achieve with the high standards that have been reached," he said.

"She expected nothing but the best from everyone around her, including herself."

Historian and nurse educator Sue Sherson said Jane Bell arrived in Sydney from Scotland in 1886 with three siblings, having lost her mother, father and four other siblings to tuberculosis. The Presbyterian Church placed Jane and her sister, Euphemia, in the homes of various Sydney doctors, and both went on to train as nurses.

President of the hospital's graduate nurses' association, Arlene Bennett, said she was thrilled to receive the items, which were of significance to the hospital and its nurses.

"The magnitude of [Miss Bell's] contribution to the nursing profession is unparalleled in Australia," she said. "Her work continues to be an inspiration for all those who follow her."

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