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Karitane Nurses – their role and their training

Dorothy - 06/05/2011


Karitane nurses is a New Zealand term for nurses with specialist training in the care of babies and young children.

What is the origin of the term "Karitane Nurse"?

Dr Frederick Truby King, the Superintendent of the mental hospital at Seacliff near Dunedin had a wide ranging interest in issues of health and was concerned about the escalating death rate among babies and children. In 1907 he persuaded some of the influential women in Dunedin to form a society to educate and support mothers.
Dr King, his wife Bella and their supporters had been caring for malnourished babies at their home at Karitane, and after the founding of the Society a home for babies was founded in Dunedin and called after King's home, the Karitane Home for Babies. Its function was to care for babies and children under two years of age who had health problems but were not being cared for under the main hospital system.

The work of the Society spread rapidly and branches opened in each of the four main centres within twelve months. After Dr King toured the country giving lectures on child care in 1912 sixty branches were formed, each needing a trained Plunket nurse.

At the Karitane Home for Babies training was offered for Plunket nurses and Karitane nurses. The Plunket nurse trainees included nurses who had completed their general training and become registered. Other young women were trained to take care of babies from newborns to two year olds and became Karitane nurses. Their training took sixteen months. Once they completed their training they would be employed in hospitals to care for the babies or in private homes to care for babies and children and often would take charge of the household while the parents went on holiday or when the mother was in hospital.

Six Karitane hospitals opened in the main centres throughout New Zealand and were centres for training Karitane nurses, but Dunedin's Karitane Harris hospital on the hill above Andersons Bay was the only training centre for training Plunket nurses.

The Karitane Harris hospital on the hill above Andersons Bay
The Karitane Harris hospital on the hill above Andersons Bay

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Most women in the first half of the twentieth century had their babies in a nursing home with a lot of bed rest, and after two weeks returned home. If the family could afford it many mothers had a Karitane nurse to help with baby and the household duties until the mother regained her strength. Their work was well known and the help of one of these nurses was termed "having a Karitane".

Margaret Inglis has vivid memories of her training as a Karitane nurse.

She began her training when she was nineteen and had to meet stringent entry requirements. There was a fee for the training and her parents paid this. Parents also had to pay their daughters a weekly allowance.

She had to supply five blue uniforms and fortunately she was able to make these herself. The uniform included a cape, white shoes and stockings, and white organdie squares which were fashioned into a cap with ‘wings' at the back. To put these on a nurse needed assistance as they had to be pleated from behind.

A nurse in Karitane uniform
A nurse in Karitane uniform

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The initials KH for Karitane Harris, the name of the Dunedin hospital where Margaret trained, were embroidered on the white apron. Each trainee had to provide her own serviette ring.

Accommodation and meals were provided for the trainee nurses. They lived in the nurses' home on the hill above the hospital. Their breakfast consisted of dry toast and was eaten at the nurses' home, but for midday dinner and the tea meal they had to eat in the hospital dining room. The groundsman lit the furnace for hot water in the morning, but if a nurse wanted a bath in the evening she had to light the furnace herself. There were no showers.

The programme for Karitane trainees was similar to that of trainee general nurses. They worked eight hour shifts on morning or afternoon duty with a shift on night duty every so often. They had a day off each week. The best break came when the day off was preceded by morning shift and followed by an afternoon shift, giving in effect 48 hours of freedom. Discipline was strict and trainees accepted their allocation of duties without question.

There were regular lectures from the tutor sister, frequent tests and a final examination.

A baby needing care was assigned to each nurse and it was her responsibility to work out the baby's diet and calorie requirements. These were checked by the matron on Tuesday mornings.

Single mothers were employed to do the cooking and the housework and breastfed their babies. These babies were cared for in the Normal section and this gave the trainee nurses the chance to observe and care for healthy babies. The babies remained in this care until they were two years old.

A Karitane nurse with a small child in her care.
A Karitane nurse with a small child in her care.

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A roofed shelter provided an area where the babies in bassinets could be placed on a shelf and have their daytime sleep in fresh air in suitable weather. Two prams had been donated to the hospital and it was a real treat for the nurses to take a baby for an afternoon walk when the weather permitted.

In the Mothercraft section on the upper floor of the hospital mothers were assisted to develop breastfeeding.

If a mother was not staying in the hospital and the baby needed her breast milk the mother would express it by hand and it was delivered by the tram which ran up the hill.

Margaret remembers the Karitane Hospital as a very austere environment where there was no unnecessary expenditure or waste.

Nina Saunders (now Proctor) had one ambition as she grew up – to train as a Karitane nurse.
Now she would probably want to go to Nanny School.

Nina's parents encouraged her to train for another profession because they saw the work of the Karitane as that of a household slave, but after a year preparing to be a physiotherapist Nina found that she was not suited physically for this work and she persuaded her parents to let her apply for Karitane training in her home town of Dunedin, the site of the main training hospital. She had to wait to be admitted and trained meanwhile as a shorthand typist and bookkeeper, but she was not sidetracked from her ambition.

Near the end of 1942 she began training at the hospital on the hill at Andersons Bay.

She has shared with readers of NZine the photos taken in her days of training used in this article.