About the Research

Prosopography in nursing research

What is it?

The databases on this website identifying nurses at war relates to my research into what the collective body of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) did during their war. I used a methodology called prosopography to achieve this.

The word prosopography literally means ‘descriptions of persons’ but the Oxford Dictionary suggests that in current use, the word means two interrelated things: (1) an auxiliary discipline collecting and organizing all evidence relating to the individuals who make up (regularly large) groups of historical persons and establishing the connections among them; and (2) an analytical approach that makes use of those collections.

To do analysis on the members of the AANS, I actually had to create databases of those nurses who served in these services; indeed, for World War I it was not clear who had actually served – see my article titled ‘Rubbery Figures’.  For World War II, I used information in the DVA Nominal Roll as a starting point, and then checked every entry against Commonwealth Gazettes, TROVE and other journals and archival material to develop a new list.

Analysis of 27 datasets for World War I allowed me to identify the roles and skills of army nurses, their demographic information and their training histories. It also allowed the development of subsets, for example, lists of nurses who trained at a particular hospital has informed the memorialisation of them at those institutions. However, the information can allow other interpretations outside a military context, for example, common female name usage of the 1890s; the reasons behind anglicisation of surnames during the war; or the ownership of hospitals by Australian women in the early 20th century should anyone be interested in such sociological studies. Analysis on World War II is centred on nurses outside the AIF paradigm.

As with many research methodologies there are different definitions of prosopography. Keiron Spires on his Boer War nurses’ website identifies it using EC Lawrence’s definition of it being a collective biography that describes the external features of a population group that has something in common. Historians using prosopography can be seen to fall into two groups. The first group have used prosopography for studying ‘elites’ and focus on detail about genealogy, business and political interests, usually displaying relationships as case studies. The data is used to show unity and cohesiveness of a particular group and the impact they had as a group (usually) on politics and government. The second group use a social science philosophy to look at much larger groups, particularly where there may be much less detail about individuals in the study. The social science view requires a more social history dataset. They are likely to study larger populations who were less likely to come to the attention of historians. The quantity of data allows a more statistical analysis. Prosopography in Australia can be seen within the construct of The Australian Journal of Biography and History which seeks to promote the study of biography in Australia and publishes articles on Australian historical biography, including collective biography and prosopography. 

Prosopography is a relatively underused tool in nursing research. It is particularly valuable when little is known about the nurses themselves. Sue Hawkins, for example, used prosopography to reveal details of the ward nurses at St George’s Hospital, London and contrasted this approach to those of other nurse historians. Helen Sweet used prosopography in a different way to study the lived experiences of district nurses in England. And Keiron Spires used it to study nurses who served in the Boer War (which included Australian nurses). The use of prosopography in these studies allowed the researchers to look across a cohort of nurses and to get a sense of what it is they had in common either as demographic backgrounds or as experiences as nurses, or both.


  1. https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195389661/obo-9780195389661-0077.xml
  2. Kieron Spires, citing EC Lawrence, (1912) A Nurse’s Life in War and Peace. London: Smith, Elder
  3. Stone, Lawrence (1981) The Past & The Present. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; see also https://www.jstor.org/stable/20023990.
  4. Stone, Lawrence (1981) The Past & The Present. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
  5. Hawkins, Sue (2010) Nursing and Women’s Labour in the Nineteenth Century: The quest for independence. Abingdon: Routledge
  6. Sweet, Helen (2003) District nursing in England and Wales c.1919-1979, in the context of the development of a community health team. PhD Thesis: Oxford- Brookes University at https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/file/a1aac4ed-36e3-4e78-93d1-507e59103f32/1/sweet003district_RADAR.pdf
  7. https://boerwarnurses.com/about-the-research/
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