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A Nurse’s Journey

A Nurse’s Journey

As the designated Corps museum for the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC) and its antecedent services, the Museum of Military Medicine boasts unrivalled resources relating to military nursing heritage and history. As well as corporate papers, the museum features many artefacts and archives relating to individual nurses. In this display we focus on the life and nursing career of Louisa Jane Wilkinson (1899–1968), whose professional career spanned several decades and who was one of the founders of the QARANC.

Early life

Louisa Jane Wilkinson (nee Lumsden), played a significant role in shaping healthcare and nursing practice through her dedicated service between 1914 and 1948. Her career was defined by several key appointments, becoming Matron-In-Chief of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) between 1944 and 1948

She was born on 11 December 1899 in Sunderland to James Lumsden, a merchant seaman, and Louisa (née Benskin). Louisa attended Bede Collegiate School in Sunderland and later Thornbeck Collegiate School in Darlington. She married Captain Robert John Wilkinson, however the marriage was short owing to Robert’s death in France during the latter stages of the First World War as part of the Irish Fusiliers.


During the tumultuous era of both World Wars, Louisa Wilkinson dedicated herself to a career in nursing. She embarked on her journey as a nurse at the age of 22, when she commenced training at the esteemed Royal Infirmary in Sunderland. Just as she completed her training, war broke out in Europe. She swiftly joined the ranks of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service as a reserve nurse serving in both the UK and Malta.

Post War, Wilkinson continued her career in the QAIMNS, first as a staff nurse in the UK, until 1926, when she was assigned to India where she served until her return to the UK when the Second World War began. She was notable at this time for establishing comprehensive nursing services to support the war effort.

In the year 1942, Wilkinson's career led her back to India, this time to assist the organization of the Indian military nursing services. Conferred the rank of Chief Principal Matron, she orchestrated an ambitious training programme aimed at empowering Indian women in the nursing profession; in addition, her training encompassed postgraduate study in nursing administration. Promoted to the position of Matron in Chief in 1944, she held this role until her retirement in 1948. Even in her retirement, her influence endured, as she assumed the title of Colonel Commandant from 1948 to 1950. It was during this time she was acknowledged for her commitment to the nursing profession, appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in June 1946 and later Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in January 1948.

Dame Louisa's legacy is further enhanced by her pivotal role in the amalgamation of the QAIMNS and the Territorial Army Nursing Service in 1948, resulting in the inception of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. Through her leadership qualities she became the first Controller Commandant, steering the course of this newly formed entity. Her commitment extended beyond her official roles, as she founded the QARANC Association, cementing her dedication to the betterment of nursing services as well as being elected as the President of the Royal College of Nursing in 1948. Dame Louisa died on 4 December 1968, aged 78.

The museum collection: awards and decorations

The storied career on Dame Louisa in captured in some of the personal effects associated with her career, including military medals as well as an extensive collection of photographs and scrapbooks.

Amongst some of the awards and military honours is that commemorating her appointment to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Alongside this are her ‘Order of St John of Jerusalem, British War Medal, Victory, 1939-1945 Star, Defence Medal, Queen Elizabeth II coronation medal and her Royal Red Cross.

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, often referred to simply as the Order of St. John, is a chivalric order with a history dating back to the 11th century. Originally established as a religious order to provide medical care for pilgrims in Jerusalem, it has developed over time to become a modern humanitarian organization. The order's emblem, a white eight-pointed cross on a black background, is a symbol of its dedication to providing medical assistance and humanitarian aid worldwide.

In addition, Dame Louisa’s career saw her decorated with campaign medals of the First and Second World Wars. The British War Medal is military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Armed Forces and some Commonwealth countries who served during World War I. The medal features the head of King George V on the obverse. The 1939-45 Star is a campaign medal awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth forces who served in various theatres of operation during World War II between the years 1939 and 1945. The medal features the crowned head of King George VI on the obverse. The Defence Medal is a British campaign medal awarded to both military and civilian personnel for non-operational service during World War II. The medal features the crowned head of King George VI. The 1939-45 War medal was awarded to full-time military personnel who needed to have completed a minimum of 28 days of service, regardless of the location of their service.

The Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal was issued in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The medal features a youthful portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse and an image of St. Edward's Crown and the date "1953" on the reverse.

The Royal Red Cross (RRC) badge takes the form of a gilded cross. Its front is adorned with red enamel and features a circular medallion at its centre, showcasing the likeness of the reigning monarch. The upper arms of the cross bear the inscriptions "Faith," "Hope," and "Charity," while the lower arm displays the year "1883."

Dame Louisa’s medal collection at the museum is also poignant, in that she inherited his 1914-15 Star, British War, and Allied Victory medals, which sit alongside her own.


Dame Louisa kept scrapbooks of photographs and captions detailing not only the regular nursing life, but also the adventurous opportunities and unique experiences that she and her staff were granted.

With snapshots of routine, such as the “Sisters Quarters, Millbank Military Hospital” and the collective nursing staff photograph, we can develop a sense of their daily lives in a female medical role during World War One, as well as how they interacted with their patients, with festivity and tinsel in the wards over the Christmas period, smiles and joy on an everyday occurrence.

But through her photographs, Dame Louisa captures the other aspect of the role of the nurses during this time, the aspect that may often seem glossed over and forgotten. For many of these women, the chance to explore and see the world had been done only through photographs and the words of others, but with Dame Louisa’s photographs we can see how they had been gifted the opportunity to experience the world and its wonders, and to truly enjoy their new surroundings overseas. From seeing the Sphinx in Egypt to having a picnic on the sand of Suvla Bay, to having a swimming collision in the sea, these photographs capture the life and laughter these ladies experienced.

All these, and more, can be seen on display at the Museum of Military Medicine. If you would like to research military nursing history using the museum’s extensive collections, please contact the curator.

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