Trained at Wanganui Public Hospital from 1905 to 1908, Vida MacLean served during both World Wars and contributed to the health, healing and welfare of many people in many places.
At the outbreak of war in November 1914, hundreds of nurses from all over the country volunteered for war service, keen to "do their bit for New Zealand" and "home", which was how Britain was viewed by settler descendants in New Zealand at the time.
In August 1914, attached to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Sister MacLean sailed on the SS Monowai to Samoa, then occupied by German troops. In Apia, she set up facilities for the treatment of sick and wounded. After returning home in March 1915 with most of the NZ troops, she joined 50 nurses leaving for the larger theatres of war with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. She served at the New Zealand Hospital in Cairo, running the isolation block that dealt with infectious diseases, which were rampant amongst the sick and wounded New Zealand servicemen serving in the Middle East.
Vida was mentioned in dispatches twice, in 1916 and 1918. Nurses proved their worth at the front and in the large hospitals that cared for the thousands and thousands of wounded and ill. Her 1916 certificate recorded, "Sister Vida McLean [sic, Nursing Service was mentioned in a Despatch ... for gallant and distinguished services in the Field." She was awarded the Royal Red Cross First Class in 1918.
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In mid-1916, Sister MacLean moved to Britain to serve in the No 1 New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst in England. Her promotion to Matron of the New Zealand Hospital in Hornchurch nearby was quickly followed by her return to the New Zealand General Hospital as Matron in early 1917. Both of these large hospitals were filled with sick and wounded men evacuated mainly from France.
When the war was over, 17 New Zealand Army Service nurses had died. Vida returned to New Zealand in 1919 and held several nursing and teaching posts. In 1925, she was employed by the Plunket Society and worked at Karitane and other Mothercraft hospitals all over New Zealand, then Australia.
In 1938, Vida went to India for a holiday. She began working, however, almost immediately, in Calcutta and Darjeeling, again in the field of Mothercraft. In August 1942, Vida Maclean joined the Indian Military Nursing Service, firstly as Sister in Assam and Jullundur (now Jalandhar) in the Punjab, then Assistant Matron and later Matron in New Delhi. She was appointed first matron of the Truby King Mothercraft Centre in India in 1946. Returning to New Zealand in 1955 after her 17-year Indian "holiday", Matron MacLean retired in Whanganui, later passing away there in 1970 aged 88.
A small collection of Vida MacLean's war memorabilia exists and includes her World War I uniform worn on active service, consisting of a long cotton dress, a long apron, a cotton cap and a short red felted cape. Her New Zealand Army Nursing Service pin and medal, a commemorative peace medal from Brockenhurst and nursing and army documents recording her service in both wars add to the evidence of her life. These items belong in the Whanganui Hospital Collection, held at the Whanganui Regional Museum.
• Libby Sharpe is Acting Director at Whanganui Regional Museum