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Nurse overcame volcanoes, earthquakes and local chiefs on Vanuatu

In 1974, Alison Todd was awarded an MBE for the quality of her medical work and her devotion to the New Hebridean people.

Alison Todd with local medical helpers.

Alison Todd with local medical helpers.

Alison Mary Todd was born on August 9, 1930, to William (Bill) Todd and Natalie Todd (nee Kennedy). She described her family as “very Scottish Presbyterian”, although her maternal grandmother, Frieda, was of German descent. Frieda had 10 children, the second of whom was Alison’s mother, Natalie, and so she had many aunts, uncles and cousins. “Both sides of my family were very strong, fiercely independent and determined, and I certainly inherited those traits,” Alison said.

Her brother, David, was born three years later, and he recalls happy days exploring creeks with his older sister in the 1930s in Normanhurst, where their maternal grandparents settled. This property lay across three large blocks of land with a huge chicken run, an orchard, and a cowshed with a cow, on which David remembers Alison first trying her hand at milking.

Their father and paternal grandfather were seafarers, manning cargo ships in the South Pacific, and as a child Alison was mesmerised by their tales. “Those stories rang in my ears,” she said. They foreshadowed her future path.

Alison Todd on her 88th birthday with a copy of her life story.

Alison Todd on her 88th birthday with a copy of her life story.

A defining experience of her young life was her father becoming a prisoner of war when she was 11 years old. His ship was captured, he was held in Tokyo, and he died of starvation before war’s end. Alison’s mother was devastated and relied heavily on Alison during those dark years.

In 1940 the family had moved from Lane Cove to their own home in Roseville. Alison finished her primary education at Roseville Public School, then went on to Hornsby Girls’ High School. The family joined the Presbyterian Church in Roseville, and Alison also belonged to other fellowships. “As a teenager, she was strongly drawn towards the church,” David says, “and it was evident that this would be an important part of her life.” Alison’s interest in missionary work was sparked, and she was thrilled when an aunt introduced her to the Reverend John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission.

After school she chose to study nursing, qualifying as a nurse at Royal North Shore Hospital before beginning deaconess training in 1957. Positions followed at St Ninian’s in the ACT, and the Australian Inland Mission in Adelaide and Alice Springs. When the Foreign Mission offered her the opportunity to serve on Paama, she leapt at it.

Adjusting to life back in Australia 20 years later was far harder for her than it had been to adjust to island life. She found hospital work frustrating and dispiriting, and relied on her many friends and her faith to help her through those desolate months.

By this time the Uniting Church of Australia had been established, and most of the congregation of the Presbyterian Church she’d once attended now belonged to the Roseville Uniting Church. She joined this church, and after a period of deep reflection began studying for the ministry. She wanted a parish in the country and was delighted to be offered the small farming town of Blayney, west of Sydney. She loved her time in Blayney and the people loved her; however, ill health caused her to retire sooner than she would have liked.

Todd remained passionate about the islands. I spent months with her writing her life story, published as Called to the Islands, and over that time, as we sat in her lounge room in West Killara, I began to taste the island food, feel the heat, recognise the people, hear the children’s laughter, walk the tracks. She made the place come alive, just as it still was in her heart.

David had settled in Canada many years earlier, and Alison visited regularly, keen to spend time with her nieces, Sarah and Claire. When Claire brought her boyfriend, Todd, now her husband, to meet Aunt Alison in Australia, he’d expected “a little old granny type, ready with a cuppa tea and fresh-baked cookies”. It was hardly the case. “Alison modelled a passion, caring and love that was not always soft around the edges,” Sarah says, “but it was no less valuable and is, in fact, how she made significant change in the world.”

Alison is survived by her brother, David, nieces Sarah and Claire and their families, and many cousins and their families.

Alison Todd 1930–2020

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