She was born at "Doonside" in Richmond (now an inner suburb of Melbourne into a musical family, attending Presbyterian Ladies College (a prestigious private school) where her musical talent emerged. She moved with her father to Queensland in 1880. She married and had one son, but was not happy there.
In 1886, she travelled to Europe with her family in an attempt to begin a musical career. With no success in London, she continued to Paris where a prominent music teacher, Madame Marchesi, agreed to tutor her. Thus began a professional career in Australia and England that saw her as the prima donna at Covent Garden through to the 1920s.
In 1909, she bought a cottege at Coldstream, a small town 50 km east of Melbourne. She also set up a music school in Richmond.
She was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 1918 and elevated to Dame Grand Cross in 1927.
After many "retirements" she finally performed her last concerts in Australia in 1928. She died of a "blood infection" in 1931, and was buried in Lilydale, near Coldstream.
Her name is associated with two foods, a dessert (the Peach Melba), and melba toast. She is also remembered in the vernacular of older Australians in the expression "more comebacks than Nellie Melba". The music hall at the University of Melbourne is known as Melba Hall. The Australian 100 dollar note features her image.
Some recordings of her voice were made in the early 20th century, and have been re-released on CD for contemporary audiences. The audio fidelity of the recordings reflects the limitations of the early days of commercial sound recording.