Mary McFarlane

This Thursday, 25 April 2024, is Anzac Day. The day holds great national importance, marking the first significant military operation fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

While perusing our catalogue of war photographs, one image of Mary McFarlane stood out. This photograph hails from a pre-internet era, a time when the relationship between the sitter and photography was markedly different. These snapshots were intended for a more intimate audience, to be shared with a lover, family, or friends. Today, with the advent of the internet, the scale of viewership has expanded exponentially, a concept Mary could never have fathomed in 1942.

 As she sat for the photograph, it was a testament to Mary’s remarkable journey. Just four years prior, she had graduated from the Royal Adelaide Hospital as a nurse. With the outbreak of war, she signed up with the Australian Army Nursing Service (ANNS). By the time this photograph was taken, she had already completed four Middle East voyages aboard the Oranje, a Dutch Hospital Ship, where she was appointed Liaison Sister, the only Australian nurse on board.

A year later, Mary was posted to HMAHS Centaur, an Australian Hospital Ship. On her second voyage to New Guinea on 1 May 1943, the Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine just off the coast of Queensland.  The torpedo exploded a fuel tank that quickly engulfed the ship in flames. The ship sunk, becoming the most significant loss of life from a submarine attack in Australian waters – 268 people were killed, and only 64 survived.  Mary was one of eleven nurses on the Centaur who died.

We remember Mary and all the nurses who have served in the military, extraordinary women who were willing to risk their lives to save others.

Lest We Forget.

By Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum