Photo Gallery




Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Nurse / Dentist 27 Apr 1873 Aug 1914, London Dec. 1914 4

Martha Burns (1873-1959)                 


“She was Queensland’s first woman (graduate) Dentist who in her later years laughed about the horrified protests of her family that she should go to university.”

Family Background

Martha Burns was born in Queensland on 27th April 1873 to Charles Douglas Burns and Mary Wells (nee Fyfe) Burns.  Charles and Mary had eight children – in 1863: Mary Christina (who died when she was 7 years old); in 1865: Elizabeth (who died in infancy); in 1866: John Douglas; in 1868: Isabella; in 1869: Jessie Clark; in 1871: Florence (Florry); in 1873: Martha and in 1878: Charles.

Martha’s father, Charles Burns, was an educated man who was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1828.  He became a Marine Engineer before travelling to Australia where he married Mary Wells Fyfe in Sydney in 1856.  Mary’s father, John Fyfe, was also a Marine Engineer, famous in Australia for being the chief engineer of “The Rose” on her maiden voyage from England to Australia.  “The Rose” was the first paddle-wheel steamer and the first iron boat to touch Australian shores.

Early Life & Education

Martha attended the Misses Jardine’s Girls’ Boarding and Day School, which was established in 1882 at Bay View House on Wickham Terrace, Brisbane situated opposite the Tower Mill Observatory.   By 1888, the school had changed its name to Miss Jardine’s Boarding and Day School for Girls and relocated to Markland Villa, Eagle Terrace, North Quay.  The Queenslander newspaper of 9 November 1889, published Martha's successful Junior Public Examinations results on page 890:  English History, B; Geography, A; English, B; Arithmetic, A; Geometry, B.   Martha also became an accomplished violinist while at school. 

From 1896 until 1900 she trained as a nurse at the Brisbane General Hospital.  She then set her mind to becoming a dentist, an idea which was frowned upon by the general population including her family.  Her determination is best illustrated in an interview with her and reported in The Courier Mail of 5 May 1954.  

An extract from this interview follows:

She became our first woman dentist

Fifty-one years ago a young Brisbane woman shrugged aside the conventions of her day to become a dentist.

When she laughs now about the horrified protests of her family, her eyes disappear behind a hundred wrinkles.  The ‘rebel’ is Martha Burns, a gentle, grey-haired woman of 81, who passes her days sitting quietly in the lulling autumn sun – with a book on dentistry in her lap.

Her home is now the Iona Convalescent Home, Herston.

Although she had been taught the violin as a schoolgirl, Martha Burns, in her own words “had no intention of becoming a lady, driving out in the buggy visiting and taking tea”.  So, she became a nurse, training at the Brisbane Hospital from 1896 to 1900.

Disregarded restrictions  

By then her two elder sisters had been launched into society.   According to the custom of the day, they “came out” at private balls held in the drawing room of the family home at New Farm, and against a romantic and gracious background of string music.  

“There just didn’t seem to be a niche for me at all.” said Miss Burns yesterday.  So she sided with her brother, played whist and tennis, galloped and jumped her horse, and in 1907 – the year she graduated as a dentist – she completed her disregard for hidebound feminine restrictions by buying a car.  It was a chain-driven, one-cylinder, seven horse-power Oldsmobile which she drove furiously up and down the street at 16 mph.

Both built “bridges” 

Martha Burns’ career as a dental student began with an argument with her Scottish engineer father “that no daughter of mine will work at such a thing as dentistry”.

“But,” she pointed out logically to her father, “We would both be building bridges”.   In the end, she got her way.

Her dental studies were paved with frustrations - because she was a woman.  At the end of three years study – the Queensland Dental Board appointed lecturers through the Sydney University Extension scheme – the board refused to register her.

Head high, she went to Sydney University “where the Dean also didn’t like women”.   She went on to Melbourne where there were already women students, and where she was able to do another year’s study.  “By then it was such a serious business – I just couldn’t fail.” she said.

She returned to Brisbane where she “had great difficulty with the board”.  But they finally created a special examination for her.

 And so, she became the first woman to get a Queensland diploma.  Her name-plate went up as a private dentist in 1907…”

Melbourne University Dental Hospital

A photograph in the Photo Gallery which was taken in 1907 shows Martha and Dorothy Gray in a lecture room with her fellow dentistry students at the Dental Hospital, Melbourne University.  Martha Burns and (Frances) Dorothy Gray were the first women in Australia to graduate in Dental Surgery through the University of Melbourne. 

In 1902 the Dental Board of Victoria registered the first ever 13 successful candidates who fulfilled the requirements of the Licentiate of Dental Surgery (LDS) which required four years study at the college.  Five years later, in 1907, the first Australian Dental Congress was held in Sydney.   During this year, the Australian College of Dentistry and the Dental Hospital relocated to 193 Spring Street, on the corner of Little Bourke Street, Melbourne.  

Opening her Dental Surgery in Brisbane

Returning to Brisbane shortly after graduation and gaining her Queensland Registration, Martha opened her first dental surgery on the 2nd Floor, AMP Chambers, Corner of Queen and Edward Streets, Brisbane;   MacArthur Chambers now stands on this site. 

This building was the hub of the commercial district at the time with close proximity to the GPO.  A list from the 1908 Queensland Post Office & Official Brisbane Directory includes the following tenants:  

1st Floor:  
•    Thynne & Macartney – Solicitors & Notary
•    Troup, Harwood & Co – Accountants
•    Hall & Dods – Architects
2nd Floor:  
•    Typewriting Headquarters
•    Martha Burns – Dentist
•    Robert Mills – Auditor & Accountant
•    AMP Society Industrial Department
•    J. Wildridge & Sinclair – Consulting Engineers. 

The Formation of the Lyceum Club in Brisbane

In 1907, a small group of women met together to discuss the possibility of forming a club like the London Lyceum Club in Brisbane.  They initially called it the Brisbane Women’s Club and Martha was a founding member and president in 1913.  The first meetings were held in either Mrs Young’s office (who was the social editor of the “Courier”) or Martha’s dental surgery waiting room in Edward Street.  (In 1919 the Brisbane Lyceum Club officially formed and still continues today as a “A club for women interested in the arts, science, contemporary issues and the pursuit of lifelong learning”.  The Club moved to new premises on the corner of Albert and Adelaide Street, soon after.)  

Link to Saint Andrew's Presbyterian Church

Martha had a strong connection with many people who were part of the congregation of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and she is listed in the 1912 Communion Roll as living at “Hope Mansel”, (2) Villiers Street, New Farm.  Her mother is also listed as a communicant and living at the same address.  (Martha’s father passed away in 1905.)

After her graduation, Martha attended the 2nd Dental Congress in Australia in 1909 which was held in Melbourne. It was reported in the Queensland Figaro 2 December 1909, page 16 that:

... Queenslanders will be proud to know that Miss Burns was the only lady member of the profession to visit Melbourne, for although Sydney and Adelaide have their lady dentists they did not go to the congress...

International Dental Congress in London 3-8 August 1914

When the International Dental Congress was advertised for 3 August 1914 in London, Martha decided to go. This decision was to change her life as an interview with her and subsequent article from The Courier Mail dated 5 May 1954 attests:

...Was in the Mons retreat. In 1914, she went to an international dental conference in London and she was there when World War I started. She immediately joined the staff of the Australian Voluntary Hospital and went to France.    She was in the retreat from Mons – “which makes me an unofficial Old Contemptible” she said...”

Another interview in the Queensland Figaro, Saturday 19 June 1915 some time after her discharge describes, with some mirth, the details of her enlistment:

A very pleasantly arranged welcome home was given by the National Council of Women to Miss Martha Burns in the YWCA rooms, Adelaide Street on Friday evening...

... Miss Burns again told the experiences of her work with the First Australian Nursing Unit when she was one of the first 18 selected to cross the Channel. The story of her selection is characteristic of Queensland. Being in England when war was declared, she offered her services to the War Office as a nurse, as she held a certificate of training from the Brisbane General Hospital. She was told there were so many prior applications she would have little or no chance.

“Oh well,” she said. “I have a dentists diploma – and I might be useful in that capacity.”    “Also,” she added, “I have a permit to act as a competent chauffeur, so if I am rejected as a nurse and a dentist, I might be accepted as a motor driver.”

“Oh! You’re the sort of woman we want at the front,” and she was accepted at once.

Martha joined Lady Rachel Dudley's Australian Voluntary Hospital

So, on 4 August 1914 when war was declared, Martha Burns joined Lady Rachel Dudley’s Australian Voluntary Hospital, an independent Field Hospital set up by Lady Dudley but staffed with Australian Volunteers – doctors and nurses and funded by Australians. The Australian Voluntary Hospital (AVH) assembled its personnel and equipment at the Ranelagh Club, a famous polo club located at Barn Elms, South West London. They were accommodated in the Recreation Club (which had been loaned for the purpose), sleeping in the pavilion, but later they were given camp beds on the grounds to accustom them to the hardships they were to face.

AVH nurses and medical staff depart on "Greta" for Le Havre

On 29 August 1914, Martha Burns and the rest of the medical team departed Southampton for France on Lord Dunraven’s yacht “Greta”, which had been accepted by the Admiralty as a transport for medical units. After landing, they moved to Le Havre, France where they proposed establishing their first base hospital. 

On their arrival in Le Havre, they found the town filled with Belgian refugees and the inhabitants on the point of evacuating, due to the approaching Germans who had battered their way through Belgium, and were advancing on Paris. (P11 shows the nurses, medical staff and orderlies having breakfast in the railway station yard at Le Havre.)   The Germans were bombarding the outskirts of the town and they were reported to be only 2-3 hours march from La Havre.

The AVH move on to St Nazaire

The unit spent a short time in Le Havre until they received orders, on 2 September, to move to St Nazaire, near the mouth of the Loire River.    They were transported aboard the Asturias, the ship which had recently narrowly escaped destruction by the torpedo from a German submarine.    In The Queenslander of 1 May 1915, Martha describes the situation on arrival:

... “The AVH did not unpack their equipment, but found work ready for them assisting the British nurses already there. The Queen Alexandra nurses were established in the Custom House.    Their equipment was perfect and the matron met them on their arrival. The Australian unit immediately relieved the British nurses for the night giving them the luxury of a whole night’s rest. The wounded were being brought in great numbers and there was no lack of work. The Australian unit were temporarily housed on Lord Dunraven’s yacht awaiting orders. These presently came for both the British and Australian units to remove their equipment to St Nazaire.

The journey was one never to be forgotten. There were 500 nurses on board. Heavy fogs were encountered in the English Channel and they did not know when they might meet an enemy. There was boat drill every day so that the different units would know exactly what to do if an enemy struck the boat. One day there was silent but deep excitement at the appearance of an unknown craft, which suddenly appeared in such close quarters as to make those on board afraid of the consequences. “A French friend, all well” was a welcome relief and one of the sisters snapped her”...

Martha’s story of the hospital re-opening at St Nazaire on 5 September continues from The Queenslander:

...”They first commandeered the private hospital under Dr Dufreche, and filled it with the wounded officers. They next took possession of the public schools, threw out the desks without ceremony, put in camp stretchers and were soon doing their best for 200 of their own wounded kinsmen from the battle of Mons.    The least seriously wounded were sent to a camp and attended to by orderlies, as many as 500 – 600 being under their care at the time. Surgeons, nurses and orderlies all worked at tremendously high pressure”...

Although the hospital was originally to be a 100-bed facility, the Retreat from Mons on 6 September stretched the facilities to its limits so they took over and rented several other buildings.

As the weeks went by, there was greatly improved organisation, succeeding the necessarily rushed arrangements at the beginning, and the hospital accomplished magnificent work chiefly amongst the British wounded. The hospital unit comprised 18 trained nurses, 70 orderlies (mostly Australian students from universities) and approximately 12 surgeons.

The move from St Nazaire to Wimereux, Boulogne

On the 26 October 1914, the AVH moved to Wimereux where it established a 200-bed hospital.    The hospital was well equipped (with motor ambulances donated by organisations in Australia), a pathology laboratory and the only X- ray unit in the area.   The day after it opened, on 29 October, it began receiving patients from the First Battle of Ypres. Martha describes the move to Boulogne:

"Their next marching orders were to Boulogne, the journey occupying three days and three nights. ... They passed through the most beautiful country ...but there were absolutely no comforts in the train. There was no water to drink and the only means of quenching thirst was by means of vin ordinaire or sweetened champagne, obtained at the stations. With this they had to eat sour French bread and bully beef. The only way they could wash themselves was by obtaining some of the warm dirty water from the engine in their india-rubber camp baths. There were no brakes on the train, no guard and the most alarming occurrences happened at stopping places, the carriages nearly telescoping more than once. They arrived at their destination, the Wimmera (sic) Hospital, Boulogne at dark on Thursday.

Early on Friday morning they took possession of a large hotel, stored furniture in the basement. They tore down window curtains, swept floors, washed them over with disinfectants and on Saturday morning had everything ready for 200 wounded men. This is said to constitute a record in speedy preparation and they were complimented by the authorities on their despatch. For 10 days and nights the wounded British and the wounded German prisoners were brought from Ypres and they were nursed devotedly."

The AVH at Wimereux was only 20 miles from the terrible fighting that occurred at Ypres and Martha reported they could hear the booming of the guns at the hospital.

On the 11 November 1914, many of unit’s tents which accommodated the male personnel of the hospital were lost in a blizzard and the men then moved to the Golf Club House of the Hotel due Golf et Cosmopolite in Wimereux. This building was eventually leased by the to the hospital and became the officers’ mess.    

Martha in many of her post-war interviews for the Red Cross Society described the work at the time:

...The nurses and their orderlies were obliged to work as many as 30 hours without a rest – when big, strapping University graduates, who left their studies to join the first Australian Hospital as orderlies, used to drop from weariness and fall asleep almost immediately.

The unrelenting work of the doctors, nurses and orderlies at Wimereux continued over 10 days and so incredible was the task facing them the nurses did not go outside the hospital building during that time. Eventually more staff came to relieve them, but by this time Martha had succumbed to the strain of four months incessant work. She had also been suffering from a bad throat and Dr Eames, the surgeon in charge, advised her to return home.

In The Queenslander, “The Week in Brisbane and Elsewhere” by Vesta, of 30 January 1915, Martha describes her time and link to Queensland while working at Wimereux:

...Miss Burns said the only little bit of Queensland she could see was the motor ambulance presented to the Australian Field Hospital. She shared a room and nursing duties with a niece of Dr Eames. She also speaks enthusiastically of the kindness shown by the French to the nurses, and their wonderfully managed hospitals.

Invalided home

Martha was invalided home from the AVH in December 1914, and was the first Queenslander to return from the actual “seat of war”. She departed from London for America in February 1915 aboard the Lusitania and travelled through America, visiting the dental college at Harvard, and then went by way of New Zealand, Tasmania and the southern states to her home in Brisbane.    Arriving in Brisbane, she was met at Roma Street Station by her sister, Mrs John (Jessie) Mowbray and a number of representatives of the Brisbane Women’s Club.

New private practice

Once home, Martha set up her private practice again where she worked until retirement in 1932. Her new Dental Surgery was situated on the 2nd Floor of the Kodak Building at 250-252 Queen Street, Brisbane.  The 2nd Floor of the Kodak Building also had other dentists practicing on that floor including Fred McNaught who is also listed on the Honour Boards.  (A photo of the windows to his Surgery on the 2nd Floor of the Kodak Building is shown in the photo gallery.)

As well as dentistry, Martha threw herself into voluntary Red Cross work. The Kodak Building ground floor display windows featured Red Cross and WW1 themes during the war.    It’s not known if Martha was instrumental in organising any of these but the connection appears very close. While in France, she often referred to the motor ambulances supplied by the Queensland Red Cross.

Post war voluntary work

Her involvement in voluntary positions and professional work was immense and some of these are listed below:

  • 1915: Member of the National Council of Women.
  • 1916: She was involved in a proposal together with Chaplin Colonel Merrington (the Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Minister and a representative of the Returned Soldiers Association) to the YMCA for a residential club for returned soldiers to be established at their premises in Edward Street.
  • 1917: Martha was a founding member of the Queensland Blinded Soldiers Association and served as president from 1921 to 1938. Meetings were held at her dental surgery in the Kodak Building until 1929.
  • 1919: She was the New Farm Branch Leader of the Women’s Emergency Corps during the Influenza Epidemic which swept through Brisbane.
  • 1921: Martha contributed to an article in the “Australian Journal of Dentistry” at the Dental Congress in Adelaide. The article showed the necessity for dentists to be on the front line in war. It was one of the first statements written on the subject by anyone who had been on active service and is believed to have accelerated the formation of the Dental Corps in Australia. (The Express & Telegraph, Adelaide, Tuesday 23 August 1921.)
  • 1929: Executive Officer for the Junior Red Cross Society, Brisbane becoming Director of the Junior Red Cross Society in 1935.
  • 1935: Awarded the Red Cross Society Long Service Medal for 20 years work.
  • 1939: Martha was Vice-President of the Queensland Branch of the Reserve Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). She represented the Voluntary Aids on the Executive of the Red Cross and was Chairman of the Joint Council of the Red Cross Representatives and the Defence Department.
  • She also served for a period on the Dental Board of Queensland.
  • Member of the Odontological Society of Queensland (which met  for scientific discussion in conjunction with the Queensland Branch of the British Medical Association)
  • Awarded a Jubilee and a Coronation Medal for her charity work which she performed so diligently.

As well as being a member of many voluntary organisations she was also invited as a guest speaker at many functions throughout Queensland and interstate, showing her love of and promoting the work of the Red Cross Society. She was well travelled and gave entertaining talks with accompanying photographs to interested clubs and societies.

Martha Burns is listed in the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame in the exhibition “First in their Field” and the listing reads:

The University of Melbourne produced Australia’s first woman graduates in dental science, Dorothy Gray and Martha Burns in 1907...

An article in The National Leader (Brisbane 1916-1918) Friday 2 November 1917 by Veritas gives an insight into her life after the war and reads:

Dental Surgeon & War Worker. There are few returned soldiers to whom Dr Martha Burns’ name is not familiar, and her work for the Red Cross, more especially in connection with the new dental ward at the Base, is well known. Miss Burns is also a keen motoriste, and her car is always available when excursions are arranged for returned men; so that the reader of this soldiers’ paper will find interest in this little chat which I had with her a short time ago:-

“Yes, I have actually thought of giving up my car lately. What with the pressure of work – both professional and war work – I have so little time for motoring,” said Miss Burns, “but when I look at her my heart fails me and I am quite sure that I could not bear to see anyone else driving my beautiful little Coupe. And if I only drive her once a week I am going to keep her.”    Beautiful she certainly is, this graceful little American car, with her colouring of green and black, glass and upholstering in pale grey cloth.

It was her bright rooms at the top of the Kodak Buildings that one found Miss Burns, the clever Australienne who has got so much that is interesting out of life, and in the pleasant little anteroom, which was fragrant with the scent of lilies and clarkia, making a patch of rose pink colour in one corner ...

... Miss Burns has however continued her work here in Australia, and there are few branches of war work in which she is not interested, though perhaps her special interest centres in the work of the Voluntary Aid Detachment... ... Miss Burns is one of the first Brisbane women motorists. “Dr Lillian Cooper and I were the first,” she said, and with a smile – “that was 11 years ago, in the days when one did not take one’s friends out unless they were good walkers. Now it is very different. One can always be sure of coming home in one’s car.” “Oh, yes, I thoroughly understand the mechanism of a car, and can repair. Although I don’t always do it myself, I can in an emergency. I think my love for all things mechanical, both in my profession and my hobbies, is inherited, for my father was, you know, an engineer ...”

Awards - Mentioned in Despatches (MID)

Sister Martha Burns, Licentiate of Dental Surgery, Queensland was Mentioned in Despatches (MID) on 21 June 1916 (London Gazette) and on 21 September 1916 (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette).  She was also awarded the 1914 Star (or the Mons Star), the Victory Medal and the British War Medal by Imperial Authority in 1919.

Martha never married and she passed away on 5 March 1959 aged 86 years after a long, interesting and full life of service.

Note:  Martha Burns' story is now listed on the Australian National University's 'People Australia' site.

Select Bibliography
• Births, Deaths, Marriages: 
• National Library of Australia (NLA) Trove digital newspapers: The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld); Queensland Figaro (Brisbane, Qld); The Brisbane Courier (Brisbane, Qld); Darling Downs Gazette (Qld); The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld); Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld); The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts (Barcaldine, Qld); The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld); Warwick Daily News (Qld); National Leader (Brisbane, Qld); Sunday Times (Perth, WA); The Australian Women’s Weekly. 
• National Archives of Australia (NAA) Repatriation Commission and Medal Awards from the British National Archive.
The British Journal of Nursing, Vol 53, October 3, 1914, Pages 264 & 265. 
This Intrepid Band. Blog by Sue Light, West Sussex, UK. 
Looking for the Evidence – WW1 Australian Women Service Units, Australian Voluntary Hospital.
• Queensland State Archives - Dental Board of Queensland Annual Reports 
• The Australian War Memorial (AWM) information and photographs as marked. 
The Medical Journal of Australia, British Medical Association News, Scientific, Vol II, 7th Year, Sydney,  4 December 1920, No 23, Page 525. Digitised by University of Melbourne -
• Photographs: Museum of Victoria, Kodak Buildings.
• Photographs: H F Atkinson Dental Museum, University of Melbourne, Victoria 
• The Lyceum Club of Brisbane.
• State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Library - digitised images, Postal Directories

Researched and written by Miriam King, December 2015 ©   Revised by Miriam, October 2019.  Edits and new images by Miriam King, February 2023.  New images of Martha uploaded on 17 October 2023 and 13 May 2024. ©



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