Curley, Sylvia, (OAM) (1898-1999)

Also known as
Curley, Sylvia (1898-1999)
Field of activity
Nurse; Advocate; Farmer; Local Historian; Nurse administrator; Activist
NLA Persistent Identifier
https://nla.gov.au/nla.party-741067

Biographies

Sylvia Curley qualified as a nurse in 1926 and spent her early years of nursing in country New South Wales. She worked for the Canberra Community Hospital (later known as the Royal Canberra Hospital) from 1938 until her retirement in 1966 as deputy matron. In her 'retirement' years she ran a nursing employment agency in Canberra and was a strong advocate for changes to nurses' education. In 1994 she donated her family home, Mugga Mugga, to the people of Canberra and oversaw its development into an environmental education centre. Sylvia Curley was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia on 8 June 1992 for her services to nursing, to local history and to the National Trust.

Sylvia Curley was born into a pioneering Canberra family and grew up on Duntroon estate, before moving to Mugga Mugga homestead in 1913.

She trained as a nurse at Goulburn for four years, and at Leeton and Narrandera she developed her lifelong commitment to patient care and student nurses education. As matron at Gundagai, in five years she changed a run-down hospital to one described by the then New South Wales (NSW) minister for health as 'the cleanest and best of its size', which she achieved through influencing administrators and community fundraising. During her time there she took leave without pay to further her training in New Zealand and Sydney.

Curley returned to Canberra in 1938 to take up the position of sub-matron of the then Canberra Hospital, only to find that the hospital had been the subject of a royal commission. Staff morale was very low and a group of nurses had resigned in protest at the actions of the hospital board and the sacking of the previous matron. Not to be deterred, she set about improving the hygiene of the kitchen, management of food supplies, menus, diets and she paid from her own salary for a Coolgardie safe to be built when the hospital board refused. Curley also introduced the tray system for patient meals.

Concerned at the lack of social lives and the rule of no visitors to nurses quarters Curley organised hospital balls and dances, largely funded from her own pocket, which were great successes and attracted up to 800 guests. She organised fetes and other fundraising events for a student nurses reference library, and for years she lobbied hospital management for improved nursing training and superannuation.

Curley went on largely self-funded study tours to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, and reported back on developments in hospital practice and nurse training, showing Australia to be behind the times. Her efforts saw the establishment in 1957 of the Nursing School in Canberra, the second in Australia, which was based on a model she had seen in New Zealand.

In 1964 a nursing home on the site of the former nurses quarters at Canberra Hospital was named in Curley's honour. In 1966, after twenty-nine years at the Royal Canberra Hospital, she retired from nursing, but without superannuation she was forced to continue working and she started an employment agency. This she ran for twenty years, during which time a dental nurse training course at Canberra Technical College was established at her suggestion and she lobbied for a medical records course for secretaries.

On retiring she set herself the project of documenting the history of the Canberra region, most of which she knew first hand, and was anxious for children to understand how things were in Canberra's past.

At the age of 91 she was recognised with a Medal in the General Division of the Order of Australia for services to nursing, local history and the National Trust.

After the death of her last family member, she maintained her family's Mugga Mugga property herself in excellent condition, receiving praise from the Department of Agriculture on her management of the farm. In 1995 Curley bequeathed the historic 17ha property to the people of Canberra, and established an education centre for environmental studies and turned the homestead into a cottage museum, which she said was the only museum in Canberra to contain original pieces of property of a pioneering family.

In 1998 her memoirs were published documenting her life at Duntroon and Mugga Mugga and her 'three careers' as a nurse, employment consultant and lessee farmer. At her 100th birthday thanksgiving mass, she described the Mugga Mugga education centre as her vision and dream. She died in the same year.

View the full record at Australian Women's Register

Sylvia Curley qualified as a nurse in 1926 and spent her early years of nursing in country New South Wales. She worked for the Canberra Community Hospital (later known as the Royal Canberra Hospital) from 1938 until her retirement in 1966 as deputy matron. In her 'retirement' years she ran a nursing employment agency in Canberra and was a strong advocate for changes to nurses' education. In 1994 she donated her family home, Mugga Mugga, to the people of Canberra and oversaw its development into an environmental education centre. Sylvia Curley was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia on 8 June 1992 for her services to nursing, to local history and to the National Trust.

A second generation descendent of Irish bounty immigrants Sylvia Curley grew up in Duntroon in what is now Canberra and was then a farming estate where her father was employed. In her life time she saw Canberra evolve from a rural farming community to be the capital city of Australia. Sylvia's strong sense of history and interest in local culture became a passionate concern and led to her activities in preserving local history. In complete concurrence with the wishes of her family, in 1995 she donated the family home Mugga Mugga Cottage, one of the oldest buildings in Canberra, to the people of Canberra to become a house museum and environmental education centre.

Similarly in her 28 years of service, she saw the Canberra Community Hospital evolve into the Canberra Hospital. (In 1979 the hospital became the Royal Canberra Hospital, later reverting to the title The Canberra Hospital in July 1996 after amalgamating with Woden Valley Hospital in 1991). The Nurses Home for the 'old' Canberra Hospital, opened in 1964 (demolished in July 1997), was named in Miss Curley's honour as Sylvia Curley House. It provided modern facilities for nurses and housed the School of Nursing on the ground floor.

Throughout her nursing career her two major concerns were the improvement of patient care through sound administrative practices and improved education for nurses. Miss Curley provides her own accounts in her book of the difficulties she encountered striving to bring about change in hospital practices and to provide basic equipment for teaching, suitably qualified nurses to run education programs and to develop an improved environment for nurses to achieve learning goals. She undertook fund raising for the purposes of achieving her vision for nurses' education. She is seen now to be ahead of her time in her advocacy for changes to nurse education. At a time when these matters were not established practice she supported a reduction in the length of the four year training program, extensions to the preliminary training period, the establishment of a qualified staff dedicated to teaching, to take charge of the education program and the provision of an adequately equipped tutorial department in which to conduct the education program.

On her retirement from nursing and her position as deputy matron of the 'old' Canberra Hospital in 1966, Sylvia Curley ran an employment agency for 20 years for nurses specialising in providing nurses for doctors' surgeries and rooms. She lived to celebrate her centenary at a mass in St Christopher's Cathedral in Manuka ACT, on 7 November 1998.

  • Undertook general training at Leeton Hospital, New South Wales
  • Staff Nurse at Leeton Hospital, New South Wales
  • Registered as a general nurse with New South Wales Nurses Board
  • Junior theatre sister Narrandarra District Hospital for two and a half years
  • School Nurse at Cranbrook School for Boys
  • Matron at Gundagai Hospital, New South Wales
  • Student Midwife at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney
  • Completed Midwifery Certificate
  • Matron at Gundagai Hospital, New South Wales
  • Sub-Matron at the Canberra Community Hospital, later the Canberra Hospital and then Royal Canberra Hospital
  • Registered with the ACT Nurse Board as a general nurse and midwife, registration number 122
  • Private Employment Consultant in Canberra
  • Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) received in the Queen's Birthday Honours list for services to Nursing and the Canberra and District Historical Society

View the full record at Encyclopedia of Australian Science

Related people and organisations

Resources for Sylvia Curley

Selected resources (10)

Australian Women's Register

  1. Curley, Sylvia
    Published: National Foundation for Australian Women
    Series: IspartOf The Australian Women's Register
  2. Curley, Sylvia (1898 - 1999), Biographical Entry
    [2002]
    Published: Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre
    Series: IspartOf Bright Sparcs
  3. A long journey : Duntroon, Mugga Mugga and three careers
    Curley, Sylvia
    [Canberra]
    Published: ACT Government
  4. From Lady Denman to Katy Gallagher: A Century of Women's Contributions to Canberra
    Australian Women's Archives Project
    [2013]
    Published: Australian Women's Archives Project
  5. Sylvia Curley
    Series: Courtesy of ACT Historic Places. Used with permission.

Encyclopedia of Australian Science

  1. Curley, Sylvia
    Published: The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research Centre
    Series: Encyclopedia of Australian Science
  2. Where are the Women in Australian Science?
    McCarthy, Gavan; Morgan, Helen; Smith, Ailie; van den Bosch, Alan
    Published: Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, 2003
  3. Death of Miss Sylvia Curley - 1999 Week 4 Hansard (20 April) Page 940-948
    Published: 1999
  4. A long journey: Duntroon, Mugga Mugga and three careers
    Curley, Sylvia
    Published: ACT Government, Canberra, 1998
  5. Royal Canberra Hospital: an Anecdotal History of Nursing 1914 to 1991
    Newman, Janet and Warren, Jennie
    Published: Janet Newman and Jennie Warren, Mawson, ACT, 1993

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