Meryl Caldwell-Smith was born in Hawthorn in 1926 and, despite her father’s wishes that she attend university, she chose to become a trainee nurse at The Children’s Hospital. In her words she was “just a raw novice” when she moved into the nurse’s accommodation at the Carlton site, aged 18 in 1945. Meryl’s cohort of 10 young trainees was unusual in that they were part of a newly introduced scheme that gave four-week’s theoretical instruction in some of the basics of nursing. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, Meryl insists that this minimal training helped very little when they were thrown into working on the wards.

Meryl’s first experience was on Ward 12, the babies’ ward, with the infants laid out in bays of six cots. She recalls some of these tiny patients suffering with terrible eczema, their hands splinted and tied down so they couldn’t scratch at their afflicted skin.

In those years the hospital also utilised large, open Nightingale Wards and as her training progressed Meryl soon found herself caring for rows of bed-ridden children with conditions including polio, tuberculosis, meningitis, diphtheria, whooping cough and cystic fibrosis. Not to mention the endless stream of children recovering from the tonsillectomies being churned through each day. At that time, the long verandahs facing Rathdowne Street were still laid out with rows of beds and Meryl tells of the happiness when, each December, Father Christmas would climb a ladder and jump straight onto the verandah, much to the delight of staff and patients alike.

Meryl also recalls the practices of the day that prohibited families from visiting sick children for weeks at a time. These restrictions were based on the belief that the presence of families created distress for the child. However, in describing children howling for their absent parents, Meryl reflects on these outdated notions:

“It was quite wrong that they weren’t allowed to have visitors any time of the day or night, but that’s the way it was … Totally ignorant we were, as was everybody else, except the mothers.”

As a young nurse, The Children’s Hospital was a special place that filled Meryl with pride; it was a place where she learnt to grow up. Meryl’s years at The Children’s Hospital also stood her in good stead as she went on to an illustrious nursing career with roles as matron and director of nursing in hospitals in Australia and overseas. In the latter part of her working life she became Director of the Division of Nursing in the New South Wales Department of Health and Chair of the Nurses’ Registration Board of New South Wales. In 1985 Meryl was awarded the honour of Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of service to the community and nursing.


Listen to an audio extract from Meryl Caldwell-Smith’s 2019 oral history interview 

Transcription of audio extract:

“Oh it’s very special. Not only because of the children but because of the feeling that we had for it when we were training. It was so important. We just loved everything about it. And seeing the hospital every year on the appeal day, and sometimes too also on Christmas Day, it’s really wonderful. … Just because it was special. It was our beginning of life really, when you first learnt to grow up a bit. And you learnt just so much. Nothing like nowadays of course, you can just get it on the television or Google at any time you want, but in those days we thought we were just so wonderful. It gave us a feeling of pride, ‘Oh yes, I’m at the Children’s Hospital.’ ‘I’m at the Children’s Hospital. Very important.'”