Susan Radford was born in Brisbane and moved to Sydney in 1911 following the breakdown of her marriage to Arthur Rawlins (also known as Arthur Francis). Settling in Pyrmont with her two children Stephen William (1903–72) and Sheila Sabina (1905–56), Susan practiced as a midwife, initially under the name of ‘Susan Tarrant’, but by 1920 as Susan Francis, or more commonly, ‘Nurse Francis’. She became so well-known in Sydney for her work during the influenza epidemic of 1918–19, that her name, image and testimonials were used to advertise the ointment ‘Zam-Buk’, 1920–23. With no formal qualifications, she was twice charged with unlawful midwifery in 1927 and 1930 but was never prosecuted.
Throughout her subsequent political career she was known as Nurse Francis. She first became active in 1926, in the Pyrmont Branch of the Labor Party, later joining the Bondi branch, unsuccessfully standing for the State seat in 1927, but gaining over 22% of the vote. Nurse Francis was very active in the Labor Women’s Organising Committee between 1928 and 1935; initially as Secretary of the Darling Harbour Branch, in which capacity she organised public meetings, campaigned for candidates, and led delegations to Parliament. In 1932, Susan stood for the Waverley Municipal Council as a Lang Labor candidate, without success.
In 1931, Nurse Francis was President of the Blind Workers Union, and with the help of other Labor Party women raised money for a Hostel for Homeless Women and Girls, initially opened at 28 Elizabeth Street Sydney and then 334 Sussex Street, but by 1935 had relocated to a permanent location, the former Gannon house at 45 Argyle St, The Rocks (a building dating from 1839). Nurse Francis was matron of the establishment which had for some decades previously served as a boarding house.
In 1936, Susan married John Lawrence Wilkes, a widower and council employee. In announcing the engagement, the Brisbane Daily Standard summed up her career:
She gained the King's Jubilee Medal for her charity and philanthropic work, which included the voluntary care of returned soldiers and the nursing of hundreds of cases during the Influenza epidemic following the World War.
Nurse Francis is a senior vice-president of the Darling Harbor branch of the A.L.P. and the King Electorate Council, and secretary of the Women Workers' Union. She is also an executive member of the Citizens of Sydney Committee. She was a delegate to the Women's Interstate Conference held in Melbourne and Canberra, and has been elected a delegate to the annual A.L.P. Conference every year over a lengthy period. (9 Nov 1935, p6)
Susan and John’s wedding celebrations were attended by politicians and Union leaders, but included a special visit to the hostel:
Before going on to the reception … the bride and bridegroom visited 45 Argyle Street, where Nurse Francis Wilkes had arranged a special wedding breakfast for the twenty unemployed women and girls for whom she has provided a home. Labor Daily 20 Apr 1936, p9
Susan henceforth became known as Nurse Francis-Wilkes; she and her husband remained at Argyle Street until her death in 1946. Right until her end Susan was very active in the Darling Harbour Labor Party branch, and encouraged women to promote themselves in society. Her daughter Sheila Davis continued to run the hostel at 45 Argyle Street after her mother’s death. In 1947 long-term residents Nellie Clune and Jean Dodd both nominated for election as Labor candidates to Sydney Council although neither was unsuccessful. When Sheila died in 1956, Nurse Susan’s grandson, George Davis, carried on the operation, as general boarding house, until 1975.