Emily May Nutsey was born in Christchurch on 9 June 1887, the daughter of Sophia Regnault and her husband, Joseph Nutsey, a warehouseman. The family moved to Northcote, Auckland, during Emily's childhood and she was educated there. She was accepted for nurse training at Auckland Hospital, graduating in 1911. Her grandmother, Anna Dorothea Regnault, had been a trained nurse and midwife who migrated to the Chatham Islands from Germany in 1846 as a mission sister. On leaving Auckland Hospital, Emily Nutsey moved to Wellington, where she obtained her midwifery certificate and subsequently held the position of sub-matron at the St Helens Hospital.
In 1915 Nutsey volunteered for war service as a staff nurse, and was one of the first contingent of 50 nurses to embark on the Rotorua for the Middle East. While based in Egypt she completed one tour on transport duty and spent a period in England. Mentioned in dispatches for bravery, she was made an Associate of the Royal Red Cross in 1918.
After her return to New Zealand in 1919, Nutsey was a sister in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service and extended her experience as a school nurse with the Department of Health in Auckland. She also visited South Africa in 1922–23 and did private nursing work there. After returning to New Zealand she moved quickly to positions of increasing responsibility: sub-matron of Pukeora Sanitorium, Waipukurau, in 1924; matron of Stratford Hospital in 1925; and matron of Hawera Hospital in 1926.
Late in 1928 Nutsey was appointed lady superintendent of Auckland Hospital. She remained there for the next 12 years, a highly effective administrator. Nutsey's appointment came at a time when a younger generation of nurses was challenging much of the rigid discipline traditionally associated with the profession. Her first task was to calm the troubles and insubordination that had led to the resignation of her predecessor. Nutsey's unflappable manner, her ability to mediate between the hospital board and her staff, and her willingness to adapt the rigid traditions of nursing to the demands of the 1930s enabled Auckland Hospital to build and maintain good staff morale over difficult times. She never failed to demand the highest standards of her staff, but was able to do so without wielding the heavy hand of the disciplinarian. When she left in 1940, the Auckland Hospital branch of the Student Nurses' Association expressed their real warmth for her when they wrote that they were losing 'a dear friend'.
As lady superintendent of the largest hospital in the country, Nutsey also contributed to nursing developments nationally. She was a member of the New Zealand Registered Nurses' Association, the Council of New Zealand Hospital Matrons, and the Nurses and Midwives Registration Board. Nutsey continued her links with army nursing as a member of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, holding the rank of matron from 1934. She was one of 10 prominent nurses appointed MBEs in the 1937 coronation honours.
When the Second World War began in 1939 Nutsey volunteered, despite health problems. She was appointed matron in chief of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service overseas, and embarked for Egypt in December 1940 with a contingent of nurses. From Egypt she supervised New Zealand's Middle East nursing operation until ill health forced her resignation and return to New Zealand in November 1943. She had received the Royal Red Cross in October 1942.
Emily Nutsey did not return to hospital work, although she continued to be involved in both nursing and army activities. She was patron of the Returned Army Sisters' Association (1944) and of the service women's division of the New Zealand Returned Services' Association (1946), and a life member of the Northcote sub-centre of the Red Cross and the Takapuna RSA. Her wartime achievements were recognised by the army with the award of the Efficiency Decoration, and in 1949 the Northcote Borough Council named Nutsey Avenue in her honour.
Emily Nutsey never married. She died at Northcote on 4 July 1953. For 30 years she had made a significant contribution to New Zealand nursing, in both civilian and military roles. Few New Zealand nurses could match the breadth of her experience, and few achieved positions of such responsibility and influence.