The life and times of Australia’s oldest physiotherapist

Nan Morrison sitting at a dining table smiling

The life and times of Australia’s oldest physiotherapist

Nan Morrison sitting at a dining table smiling

Ruth Grant explores the life and remarkable career of South Australian physiotherapist Anna Dorothea (Nan) Morrison, who graduated in 1938 and observed many changes in the profession over the following decades.

Aged 106 when she died in June last year, Nan Morrison remains Australia’s oldest physiotherapist. 

Nan was a great oral historian. 

In this way she preserved a record of her life, along with a rich family history that intersects some important milestones in the history of South Australia.

Nan was the grandchild of surgeon, scientist and politician Sir Edward Charles Stirling, whose inclusive views on women in politics, medicine and society greatly influenced his daughters and, in turn, Nan herself. 

Stirling was consultant surgeon to the Adelaide Hospital and Adelaide’s first Professor of Physiology and was knighted in 1917. 

He was instrumental in the establishment of the Adelaide Medical School in 1885 and a great supporter of women entering medicine. 

Stirling was also a strong believer in women’s suffrage. 

As Member for North Adelaide in the South Australian House of Assembly, he introduced a bill to enfranchise women in 1886. 

While it was not supported, it was a harbinger of the successful vote in 1894.

Nan was surrounded by women of independent thought and initiative, the most notable of whom was her aunt Harriet Stirling OBE. 

Along with Dr Helen Mayo OBE (the second woman to graduate in medicine from the University of Adelaide), they established the School for Mothers (now Child and Family Health Services) and the Mareeba Babies Hospital. 

Many a church hall in the Adelaide Hills had its roof repaired or replaced thanks to income derived from performances put on by Nan’s mother (who was very musical) and her friends. 

A strong sense of ‘giving back’ runs through the family.

‘Do I have to go to school? It greatly interferes with my life,’ said Nan at age 10. 

She attended a small private school for girls in North Adelaide and left as soon as she could. 

When asked what she would like to do, she said that she would like to stay at home with her parents, Anna and Sydney Booth, and just read. 

She learnt immediately that that was not an option. 

Nan was sent to the Invergowrie Homecraft Hostel in Melbourne for a year, where she learnt household management, cooking, home nursing, first aid, dressmaking and how to work in a kindergarten. 

While at Invergowrie, Nan decided she wanted to do physiotherapy. 

She returned home and successfully undertook her Leaving Certificate to gain entry.

Nan was one of eight students entering the physiotherapy course in 1936. 

The first Department of Physiotherapy in South Australia opened at the Adelaide Hospital the same year. 

Much of Nan’s time would be spent between the University of Adelaide, with which the course was affiliated, and this new department.

Significantly, however, she was entering a new, longer course. 

At a special general meeting of the South Australian branch of the Australasian Massage Association in February 1936, it was agreed that the course would be extended by six months to two and a half years. 

A new subject was added—Muscle Re-education—plus further practical clinical work to better prepare new graduates for working with polio patients. 

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland had been battling with severe epidemics of poliomyelitis in the early 1930s. 

By 1937, South Australia was also caught in its grip.

With polio epidemics all around Australia, the need for trained staff was so great that in South Australia in 1938, the final practical examination was put forward by three months, enabling successful students to obtain part-time appointments at the Adelaide Hospital while still completing the full-time clinical component of the course. 

Nan remembered very clearly the lengthening of her course and the emphasis on the treatment of children with polio. 

She remembered, too, as a senior student being responsible for her own patient list. 

Her transition from student to physiotherapist was seamless, with payment as the only differentiator. 

Nan received one and eleven pence ha’penny an hour. 

She was extremely annoyed to discover that the men were paid a third as much again.

Nan gained her Diploma in Massage, Medical Electricity & Medical Gymnastics from the Australasian Massage Association in 1938 (at a total cost of 71 pounds and 15 shillings). 

In 1945 this qualification became the Diploma in Physiotherapy from the University of Adelaide. 

As early as December 1930, there had been discussion federally about the substitution of ‘physiotherapy’ for ‘massage’ on the diploma. 

It was not until 1938, however, that the profession agreed formally to replace the less inclusive term ‘massage’ with ‘physiotherapy’ generally. 

In 1939 the association became the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

The year 1939 was eventful for Nan, then just 22. 

She had not long commenced practice when her mother died. 

Nan became engaged to Robert Morrison and they purchased a house together. 

When war was declared in September, her wedding had to be brought forward because Rob was given only four days leave.

Almost immediately on beginning work at the Adelaide Hospital, Nan was asked to treat private patients, which she did mostly in their homes. 

She loved her work, practising until early 1941, when she became pregnant with her first child. 

Nan’s two children were born during the war.

When the war ended and both children went to school, she returned to work part-time at the Children’s Hospital, predominantly with polio patients. 

She also worked for a time at the Repatriation Hospital at Keswick.

In 1959 she was invited to take up a role at Ashford House School, working with children with cerebral palsy until the school closed in 1976. 

Nan’s enthusiasm for her physiotherapy work, particularly with children, comes through strongly in the oral histories.

Nan had had a sheltered upbringing, with loving parents and very little to do for herself because they always had a maid. 

Until she was married, she had never been alone in the house at night. 

She grew up very quickly during the war and Invergowrie training came into its own. 

Her enquiring mind, common sense and wry humour aided her greatly. 

Also possessed of a sharp intellect, Nan was delighted to be invited to join the ‘Minerva Club’, set up by some of her friends. 

These were mothers raising children on their own in wartime, longing for adult conversation and intellectual stimulation.

Topics were discussed, researched and presented as papers. 

Good at sewing, Nan made clothes for friends’ children as well as her own.

Like her grandfather, her aunt and her mother, Nan had a strong social conscience. 

Children’s libraries in South Australia were non-lending at the time unless you were active in children’s services. 

With her friend Irene Pettit, Nan resolved to make books freely available to all children. 

They embarked on a vigorous public campaign and enlisted the help of politician David Brookman. 

In 1951, the Free Library Movement of South Australia held its first meeting with three members. 

By 1952, the Children’s Library had become a lending library but only for children living in the city. 

They continued to lobby. 

In 1955, a bill was introduced to Parliament that encouraged councils to establish free lending libraries, with subsidies provided by the state government. 

It passed and the first such library opened in Elizabeth in 1957, followed by a rural library in Nuriootpa. 

Nan and Irene were honoured guests at the opening. 

Nan was the guest speaker, along with the Minister of Education. 

Other councils followed.

Some years later, Nan was awarded an OAM. 

However, as her son Rob revealed, ‘Characteristically, she declined it, on the grounds that Irene Pettit had died and could not be similarly recognised.’ 

Nan was proud when her daughter and son were awarded OAMs in later years, Anna for services to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and Rob for his work in conservation, science education and communication.

The commitment to ‘giving back’ continued strongly in the family.

Nan had many creative interests—mosaics, spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting, knitting and rug making. 

Valued friendships were made through these activities over the years. 

She was still knitting at 106, continued to meet with the last of the ‘Minervans’ and remained an avid Scrabble player. 

In her 90s, her balance and mobility were such that not only could she put her socks on standing up, but she could also get up off the floor unaided, often demonstrating to her great-grandchildren how important this was as one got older. 

She took part in various fitness programs over the years, including tai chi, aquarobics, Pilates and line dancing. 

Nan’s explanation that the leg injury she sported shortly after taking up line dancing (in her late 80s) was due to an encounter with a supermarket trolley did not convince her daughter. 

Her last birthday was celebrated in the Royal Adelaide Hospital. 

As Nan put her hand out for a second riesling, her grandchildren advised caution because the occupational therapist was shortly to assess her, including her balance. 

Keeping her arm outstretched, she said, ‘They’ll have to take me as I am.’

Nan Morrison died on 11 June 2023. 

A long life lived generously and well.

My thanks to Dr Rob Morrison OAM and Tom Cox KC for the freedom to draw from their eulogies given at the funeral service for Nan Morrison. 

Thanks too to Dr Rachel Harris for permission to draw from the transcript of her interview with Nan on 10 July 2016, part of her PhD thesis titled ‘In a State of War: Women’s Experiences of the South Australian Home Front, 1939–45’, held by the State Library of South Australia.

For more information, see Pope, A. ‘Full transcript of an interview with Anna (Nan) Morrison in April 2004’. OH 693. J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection. State Library of South Australia; and Ganne, J.M. History of the School of Physiotherapy, South Australia. Volume 1, unpublished, 1996.

>> Professor Ruth Grant APAM is an APA Honoured Member, Professor Emeritus at the University of South Australia and a Member of the Order of Australia for services to physiotherapy, to education and to the advancement of clinical health sciences in Australia.

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