Mary Coleman's Australian Imperial Force (AIF) service record notes that she was born at Hay in New South Wales, though newspaper reports at the time of her death claimed that she came to Western Australia with her parents in 1897.
In 1910, Mary registered as a member of the Australian Trained Nurses' Association having trained at the Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie hospitals. Then in 1911, she earned a certificate of efficiency in the Australian Army Nursing Service. Coleman spent the next 18 months practising as a private nurse in Perth.
In late 1913, Coleman sailed for England to further her nursing education. She gained additional qualifications and was said to have worked as a nurse in the London slums.
When the war began, Coleman was still in England. She joined an imperial nursing unit and sailed for France. Newspapers suggested that she was the first Australian nurse on active service in the war.
Coleman returned to London in March 1915 and joined Lady Paget's nursing unit, a unit of the Serbian Relief Fund that maintained 5 hospitals in Serbia.
Lady Paget's unit comprised 40 nurses and several doctors who went to Skopje in Serbia in April 1915. After months of service, the unit found itself in the path of a Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian advance and its members were interned as prisoners of war (POWs).
In captivity for several months, Coleman nursed enemy troops before being allowed to leave. She returned to England via Romania, Russia, Sweden and Norway.
In recognition of her work in Serbia, Coleman received the Cross of Mercy.
Coleman returned to Australia and enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service. She served on the Western Front in Europe, returning home to Australia after the war, in 1919.
Before leaving England, Coleman received what one newspaper called 'a highly complementary address from the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem in recognition for 'services rendered during the war.'
Coleman remained with the Australian Army Nursing Service for a year after her return, serving in No 8 Australian General Hospital, Fremantle, before taking her discharge from the army.
In 1921, Coleman became matron of the Coonamble Hospital in New South Wales. Eighteen months later, she sailed for the United States.
Coleman lived and worked in the United States for the rest of her life, including a period with the Tropical Oil Company's medical department in Colombia. She died at Loomis Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis in 1938. It's unclear if she was there as a patient or a member of staff.
Having spent much of her life travelling outside Australia, Coleman was described in one newspaper profile as the country's 'most-travelled nurse'.