Meet our members: Elinor Wrobel
Where did your interest in history come from?
I grew up in a Georgian house in the 1930s and 40s, during the worst financial depression Australia had known. We lived in Paddington when it was an unfashionable slum, amid the desperately poor living in rented terrace rooms, with dole queues, soup kitchens, street evangelists, razor gangs, sly grog shops, SP bookies and tough cops. Around me were out-of-work musicians, artists, actors and academics, communists and failed businessmen. I attended Paddington Public School, Sydney’s oldest infant and junior school, then St Catherine’s Church of England Girls School, Waverley, the oldest private school in Australia. Matriculation in 1951 was followed by nurse training at Sydney Hospital, established 1788. How could I not be permeated by our history?
From a young age you were drawn to the arts, costume and design. What led you to nursing?
I wanted to be a stage designer, but my father wanted me to be a pharmacist. Eventually I decided to take up a profession and became a theatre sister. I had an aptitude for the work, with strong organisational skills, and found it fascinating.
How did your needlework skills lead to your particular role as a nurse?
My aunt trained as a haute couture seamstress and when I was a child she taught me to sew. During the Depression, she was making gas mantles out of silk for gaslights. So for pocket money I would sit and make these mantles with her, which went to the Hibernian building down near Central Railway Station for final production. In the 1950s, one of the surgeons at Sydney Hospital found out that I had a background in sewing, and I began working for him making sections of aorta for heart surgery out of material imported from America.
You left nursing when you married, and in the 1960s with your husband, Fred, amassed a substantial collection of Australian art. What brought about your return to Sydney Hospital?
In the 1970s I began a career in exhibition curation in textiles and costumes. Then in 1999 Fred noticed an advertisement from the Graduate Nurses’ Association in the Wentworth Courier and he said, ‘Why don’t you go to this? You’re a graduate’. I went to a meeting of the association in 2000 and they announced that the hospital was going to open a museum on nursing the next year to celebrate Federation, and a light went on in my mind. I’ve got the background, I’m going to do it! I was always interested in the history of the hospital when I trained there. I loved the history of who went before you and the history in objects.
Today, when you visit the museum you enter the oldest building within Sydney Hospital and you’ll find a collection that encompasses nursing, medical and paramedical objects, archives pertaining to patients and lay staff, scientific research and historical artefacts. The Florence Nightingale and Lucy Osburn collections have particular meaning in 2018, as it is 150 years since the arrival in Sydney of English nurse Lucy Osburn, who created modern nursing in Australia.
Is there an SLM site that has special meaning for you?
I was taken to Vaucluse House by my father as a very small child, and whenever I visit it evokes my childhood memory. The lush maidenhair fern cascading down the iron stand at the foot of the stairs, tree ferns edging the colonnade, the decorative iron candlesticks depicting a rat looming over a bird’s nest on the fireplace mantel in the family breakfast room, as I pass by into the garden and the sounds of the trickling stream meandering into the bay.
The Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Museum is located at Sydney Hospital. Open Tuesdays 10am–3pm. For inquiries, please contact 02 9382 7427
If you’re a Sydney Living Museums member and want to share your experience with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org