Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Humanities and Social Inquiry


This thesis examines the experiences of two groups of nurses who served in the Vietnam War, the members of Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC) and the women who volunteered as members of the civilian aid surgical teams who served in Vietnam under the humanitarian aid clauses of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO). The oral testimonies of 31 members of both RAANC and the civilian aid teams provided the evidence used for this thesis.

The thesis argues that both groups of women, irrespective of their mode of deployment worked within a tradition of Australian nursing: the military nursing tradition, first established by the Boer War nurses, and developed further by Australian nurses in subsequent world wars. The military nursing histories and the development of that tradition provide the context for the study of the testimonies of the 31 nurses. The study notes that traditions have a malleable quality that allows for adaptation and change and reflect the conditions in which the nurses found themselves and the common elements that link the experiences over different wars.

The presence of civilian aid nurses in Vietnam raises a question concerning a nursing tradition that historians have identified within Australian military nursing, which the thesis explores further. This was the first time a large group of Australian civilian nurses (210) had served in an overseas region of conflict, but the histories, except one, and the Australian government saw only the nurses in the armed forces as part of the military structure, and the civilian aid nurses distinct from that structure administered by the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). This thesis argues that the attitudes, working conditions and experiences of both groups of nurses, particularly the civilian aid nurses, reflected the experiences of nurses in past wars in perpetuating a military nursing tradition. This suggests that the attitudes and responses to nursing in a war zone may not simply be a nursing tradition associated with the military, but is more a general response of nurses to their work in areas of conflict, sometimes with little regards for age, race, or enemy affiliation.