Dame Sidney Jane Browne (1850–1941), by Langfier
Browne, Dame Sidney Jane (1850–1941), nurse, was born on 5 January 1850 in Bexley, Kent, one of the four children of Benjamin Stocks Browne and his wife, Jane Sidney, formerly Deane. Sidney grew
up in a medical family: her father was a surgeon and her two brothers were doctors. She was educated at home, and when she was twenty-eight started nursing at the Guest Hospital, Dudley, before
transferring in 1879 to the West Bromwich District Hospital to undertake a formal three-year training. As a qualified nurse she worked briefly at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, before joining the
army nursing service in 1883. While at St Bartholomew's she was influenced by the matron, Ethel Manson (later Mrs Bedford Fenwick), who believed that nursing was a profession and should command
professional education and status.
As an army sister Browne was posted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley. At this time the army nursing service consisted of about twenty sisters, and their role was ill-defined. In peacetime they were responsible for the nursing in the large military hospitals, but their small number meant that the nursing work was done by orderlies with the sisters acting as superintendents. Between 1885 and 1899 Browne held a series of increasingly responsible positions in the army nursing service, which included active service in the Sudan wars, for which she was awarded the khedive's star and the Egyptian medal and bar. She served at the military hospitals at Woolwich, Malta, and Curragh Camp, Ireland, and at the Herbert Hospital, Woolwich. With the outbreak of the South African War in October 1899 she was ordered to South Africa and served for three years as superintending sister at three different base hospitals. Following severe criticism of the War Office's handling of the medical services during the war, fundamental reforms were introduced. One of these was the establishment of a proper army nursing service, to be known as Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. Browne was recalled to England to take up the position of matron-in-chief of the new service. For her service in South Africa she was awarded the Royal Red Cross.
By the standards of the War Office, Browne had advanced ideas about the status of nurses. As matron-in-chief she worked for the establishment of the new service on professional lines and argued successfully for members of the service to hold officer rank. Against strong disapproval from the traditional Royal Army Medical Corps, she introduced a new system for the training of the nursing orderlies, transferring their training from the medical staff to the nursing sisters. When she retired in 1906, at the age of fifty-five in accordance with army regulations, the number of nurses in the service stood at 400. Two years later she was closely involved in another army reform, the establishment of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. With her good friend Elisabeth Haldane, sister of R. B. Haldane, secretary of state for war, she worked with the War Office to establish this reserve of trained civilian nurses who would serve in military hospitals at home in the event of war. The success of the service relied on the recruitment of civilian nurses; helped by the mood of the time, nurses responded to the opportunity to take an active part in the defence of their country. When the First World War started in 1914, Browne was responsible for the mobilization of the service and also for its rapid expansion from 3000 members to over 7000 strong, with approximately 25 per cent of its members serving at the war front. As matron-in-chief she travelled all around the country and abroad, under wartime conditions, inspecting the living and working conditions of the nurses.
Throughout the war there was a shortage of trained nurses, and the issue of how to control the use of untrained volunteer nurses in the military hospitals was of great concern to trained nurses. Browne played a key role in mediating between the establishment and the profession. She had been a supporter of the campaign for state registration for trained nurses since qualifying and was an active member of the various associations set up to promote the cause. As a result of the war, the balance of opinion among trained nurses shifted in favour of registration and the College of Nursing was founded to provide a uniform standard of training and examination. Browne became a member of the college, and her administrative experience and financial abilities were of great value to the new organization. She became the first president and the first nurse honorary treasurer of the college.
Browne's contribution to the great channelling of women's energy during the war was recognized at the Exhibition of Women's War Work, organized by the Imperial War Museum in 1918, where her portrait hung beside those of Dr Garrett Anderson and Dr Flora Murray. She received many tributes for her war work, including a bar to her Royal Red Cross and her appointment as DBE; the University of Leeds awarded her an honorary nursing diploma, the League of Red Cross Societies awarded her the international Florence Nightingale medal, and she was the first woman to receive the freedom of the city of West Bromwich.
After the war Browne retired from many of the offices she held, including the position of matron-in-chief and that of British representative of Lady Minto's Indian Nursing Association. She continued to play an active role in the College of Nursing until she left London in 1927. The rest of her life was spent in Cheltenham with her long-standing friend Hilda Hoole. When she died, at 11 Tivoli Road, Cheltenham, on 13 August 1941, at the age of ninety-one, she was described as the ‘modern Florence Nightingale’. The funeral, which was held on 16 August at St Stephen's Church, Cheltenham, where she was buried, was of a semi-military character. A Red Cross flag, which had flown over the army sisters' quarters at Springfontein, covered her coffin.
Susan McGann, ‘Browne, Dame Sidney Jane (1850–1941)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/49193, accessed 28 May 2017]