Dunedin nurse’s devotion to sick took a heavy toll

Jennifer Harford with a portrait of her great aunt Eva Cooper, a Dunedin Hospital nurse who died...
Jennifer Harford with a portrait of her great aunt Eva Cooper, a Dunedin Hospital nurse who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Eva Cooper devoted her life to helping others, a work ethic which cut her life short.

Miss Cooper was one of four Dunedin Hospital nurses who died from the disease during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

That was a remarkably low number, given nurses spent their days with the sick, infection control protocols were in their infancy, and Dunedin Hospital was devastated by the disease — at one point during the outbreak four of its five surgeons and 82 of its 116 nurses were seriously ill in hospital beds.

Eva Cooper (26) was from a Gore farming family, but was unable to be returned home after her death.

"There were restrictions in place at the time which meant she had to be buried here, so she is buried in Andersons Bay cemetery," Jennifer Harford — her great-niece — said.

"There is also a plaque there for my great uncle, Frank Cooper, who was killed a year earlier in Egypt in World War 1."

Although influenza took a terrible toll in Dunedin, killing 272 people in a matter of weeks, Eva Cooper’s death was important enough to be recorded by the newspapers of the day.

"She was educated at the East Gore School and two years ago joined the nursing staff at Dunedin Hospital," the Gore Ensign reported.

"The flag was flown at half mast at the Dunedin hospital out of respect to the memory of the deceased."

It was a ritual sadly carried out several more times at the hospital.

Cooper’s fellow nurses Jessie McRae and Mary Watson were killed by influenza, as was Sister Elsie Loudon and volunteer worker Evelyn Elliott.

Three other southern volunteer nurses — Mary Newman and Janet Logan (both Owaka) and Ivy Mitchell (Balclutha) — also died from influenza during the epidemic, which killed 9000 people across New Zealand.

The eight women are remembered on a commemorative plaque in the Dunedin Hospital chapel.Eva Cooper was the first member of the family to show any interest in medicine, Mrs Harford said.

"The family couldn’t afford to send too many children to university — someone had to stay home and run the farm.

"She (Eva) was lucky enough to go to university, as was her twin sister ... their brother desperately wanted to go to university, but he was told ‘no way’."

Several medical professionals were killed in the pandemic, and two have memorial statues — Dr Charles Little at Waikari and Dr Margaret Cruickshank, New Zealand’s first woman doctor, at Waimate.

By a quirk of fate, there was a family connection between the Coopers and Cruickshanks — a sister of Eva married a brother of Dr Cruickshank.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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