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May Palmer

By Georgina White
Curator, Cenotaph Galleries

Nina May Palmer was born in 1871, she graduated as a registered nurse, in 1902 having previously worked on the staff of Wellington Hospital from 1883-1895. Her collection of medals and badges tells us her story of nursing thoughout the First World War, when war broke out, May was no stranger to war-time nursing. 

Miss May Palmer with some of her patients, (at the back wearing her medals). Published in  \u003ca href =\"https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/KT19150101.2.13\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e Kai Tiaki: The Journal of the Nurse of New Zealand, 1 January 1915.\u003c/a\u003e

Miss May Palmer with some of her patients, (at the back wearing her medals). Published in Kai Tiaki: The Journal of the Nurse of New Zealand, 1 January 1915.

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Nursing in the Balkans, June – July 1913

During the summer of 1913, May was holidaying with her mother in Europe, when war broke out in the Balkans. The four Balkan states of Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro had recently united to win back their independence from the Ottoman Empire and regain lost territories. Now they argued amongst themselves for who should control Macedonia. From the 16th of June until the 18th of July, allied Serbian and Greek forces fought the Bulgarians. The Greek royal family made an urgent public appeal for trained medical staff. May responded.

New Zealand Registered Nurse Badge belonging to May Palmer, following her training at the Wellington School of Nursing. Auckland War Memorial Museum \u003ca href =\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-646033\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e2006.4.5\u003c/a\u003e

New Zealand Registered Nurse Badge belonging to May Palmer, following her training at the Wellington School of Nursing. Auckland War Memorial Museum 2006.4.5

© Auckland Museum CC BY

She had commenced her nursing training at Wellington District Hospital in 1893, the same year New Zealand women won the right to vote. She completed her training, became a registered nurse and for 10 years ran her own private hospital in central Wellington.

The Greek royal family accepted May’s offer to help. Immediately she was posted to Salonika to nurse Greek soldiers. In a letter to the New Zealand nursing journal Kai Tiaki, May reported that the hospital was ‘taxed to its uttermost’.[1] Once a fine building it was now battered ‘both outside and inside by the quick-firing guns’ – and before it could be made ready, 950 Greek men streamed in, ‘all requiring more or less immediate attention.’[2]

Quickly May became familiar with the wounds of war. The men lay on blankets on the floor while May and her nine colleagues worked through the night, tending to ‘terrible head injuries chiefly caused by shrapnel’[3] and administering doses of morphine. Reporting what she saw and dealt with, May was matter-of-fact but her descriptions are not for the faint-hearted. ‘There were many shockingly badly shattered limbs,’ she informed her New Zealand readers, ‘and some sad abdominal cases where the intestines and bladder had been riddled with bullets.’[4]

ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΑ / 1912 ΗΠΕΙΡΣ 1913, Badge received by Staff Nurse Palmer NZRN who served with the Greek Red Cross in Macedonia, Auckland War Memorial Museum, \u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-646077\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e2006.4.14\u003c/a\u003e

ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΑ / 1912 ΗΠΕΙΡΣ 1913, Badge received by Staff Nurse Palmer NZRN who served with the Greek Red Cross in Macedonia, Auckland War Memorial Museum, 2006.4.14

© Auckland Museum CC BY

The hospital staff did their best, making do with what resources they had. School students helped to roll bandages, prepare dressings, and feed and fan patients. ‘The heat was great,’ May wrote, ‘and the flies most troublesome.’[5]

For May, communication proved an additional difficulty. Fortunately, she made the acquaintance of a couple of English-speaking Greek men who hailed from New Zealand and Australia. Extraordinarily one of these men had once regularly supplied May’s family in Wellington with fish and oysters – ‘the world,’ May mused, ‘is indeed small.’[6]

Others may have been deterred by nursing experiences during the Balkan wars, but not May. When the First World War began in August 1914, she was one of the first New Zealand nurses to embark for the Front.

Nursing in the First World War

When the First World War began many New Zealand nurses, trained and untrained, wrote to the New Zealand government to eagerly offer their services. But one by one they were turned down. They were told that the government had decided not to send any nurses with the New Zealand troops and that there were sufficient British nurses to do the work.

Badge of Association of French Women, \u0027Souvenir of Great War 1914-1918\u0027; belonged to Nina May Palmer. Auckland War Memorial Museum \u003ca href =\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-646038\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e2006.4.11\u003c/a\u003e

Badge of Association of French Women, 'Souvenir of Great War 1914-1918'; belonged to Nina May Palmer. Auckland War Memorial Museum 2006.4.11

© Auckland Museum CC BY

The New Zealand government’s position did eventually change, and the New Zealand Army Nursing Service was formed, but several women did not have the patience to wait. As Anna Rogers explains, ‘many women, frustrated by the government’s initial refusal to allow nurses to serve at the front and unwilling to wait for the red tape to be untangled, paid their own way to England.’[7] May Palmer was one such woman. By October 1914 she was en route to Marseilles to join the French Red Cross. By the end of the war, approximately 100 New Zealand women had made their own way to Europe to serve with French or British nursing organisations.

May’s experiences in the First World War

May travelled from Wellington to Sydney and then on to the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea where her ship, the Morea, was ordered to go no further. This order did not stop determined May. With an Italian professor, a young Englishman, and two French brothers (who had returned from Australia to fight for France), she sailed from Malta to Sicily and on to mainland Italy then travelled by train north through Italy and west to Marseilles. May reflected, ‘At ordinary times I should not have minded doing the long overland journey alone but in times of war I find it is much better to have men to fall back upon.’[8]

In Marseilles she found work ‘almost at once,’[9] joining the hospital of the French Red Cross. The hospital had beds for 500. Many nights they were overwhelmed. Trainloads of men wounded on the fields of Belgium and northern France arrived from Nice where hospitals were already overcrowded. French boys helped to carry in the stretchers. ‘At this distance we do not get the very serious cases,’ May wrote, ‘but some of them are bad enough… [The] bullets inflict horrible and dangerous wounds, and we have a good many of them.’[10]

It was while she was working in France that May purchased the brass medallion on display in Pou Maumahara. It was designed by French artist René Jules Lalique and sold to raise funds to aid orphans of war. The image on the medallion shows a female figure protecting two young children.

Orphelinat des Armees, French Orphans of War Medal, purchased by May Palmer, Auckland War Memorial Museum \u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-646078\" target=\"_blank\"\u003e2006.4.15\u003c/a\u003e

Orphelinat des Armees, French Orphans of War Medal, purchased by May Palmer, Auckland War Memorial Museum 2006.4.15

© Auckland Museum CC BY

In August 1915, following her work in France, May applied to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), a British organisation, and was accepted. With the QAIMNSR, May was posted to the British Expeditionary Force No. 1 General Hospital in Étretat, North-western France, and then to the hospital ship Asturias (in 1917 this ship would be torpedoed and sunk). 

All the while May was treating patients, she herself was sick. In October 1916, she was admitted to hospital in Southampton, England, with breast cancer. Her right breast was subsequently removed. Following surgery, she was declared ‘permanently unfit’ and discharged from service. Even this did not stop the formidable May. She applied to serve again with the French Red Cross, this time in Menton. In a letter to a nursing colleague on 12 April 1917, May wrote:

It has been a very real grief my having been compelled to leave the Service and nothing, but ill-health would have caused me to do so as long as I was wanted… Now that I have a clean bill of health… and feel quite fit to get to work again, I feel much encouraged by the present Matron at Menton to apply for the post…

May’s application was accepted. She worked with the French Red Cross until the war ended. When it did, this tireless woman became matron of a hospital built to care for the 20,000 men who were employed to build the Assissan Dam in the Sudan.


May Palmer's medals and badges are on display on Level Two in Pou Maumahara. They are the material evidence of May Palmer’s extraordinary nursing service before and during the First World War. They enable us to piece together May’s wartime work, brought to life by her letters home to the New Zealand nursing journal Kai Tiaki

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References 

[1] May Palmer, “Nursing the Greeks in Salonika during the last Balkan War”, Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VII, Issue 4 (October 1914), 173.

[2] May Palmer, “Nursing the Greeks in Salonika during the last Balkan War”, Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VII, Issue 4 (October 1914), 173.

[3] May Palmer, “Nursing the Greeks in Salonika during the last Balkan War”, Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VII, Issue 4 (October 1914), 173.

[4] May Palmer, “Nursing the Greeks in Salonika during the last Balkan War”, Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VII, Issue 4 (October 1914), 173.

[5] May Palmer, “Nursing the Greeks in Salonika during the last Balkan War”, Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VII, Issue 4 (October 1914), 173.

[6] May Palmer, “Nursing the Greeks in Salonika during the last Balkan War”, Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VII, Issue 4 (October 1914), 173.

[7] Anna Rogers, While you’re away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899-1948 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003), 153.

[8] May Palmer, “Under the French Red Cross” in Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VIII, Issue 1 (January 1915), 15.

[9] May Palmer, “Under the French Red Cross” in Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VIII, Issue 1 (January 1915), 15.

[10] May Palmer, “Under the French Red Cross” in Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume VIII, Issue 1 (January 1915), 15.

Additional Information

Archives New Zealand: Nina May Palmer - Nurse, Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve R22422890

The National Archives (UK): May Palmer’s file

Letters by May Palmer published in Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand 1914–15.

NM Gelber et al, “An Attempt to Internationalize Salonika, 1912–1913.” Jewish Social Studies Vol. 17, No. 2 (April 1955): 105–120.

Rogers, Anna. While you’re away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899–1948. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.

Cite this article

White, Georgina. May Palmer. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 2 July 2021. Updated: 2 July 2021.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Palmer