Sue Hawkins, Kingston University The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 8 (1) 2020

Under the curation of Teresa Doherty, Head of Library and Archives at the Royal College of Nursing, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has recently launched an update containing the lives of 20 people (19 women and 1 man) who played a notable part in the development of the nursing profession in the UK in the twentieth century. This initiative is long overdue: both in its recognition of important nursing leaders in the UK and in the increase in female subjects within the ODNB in general. It is expected that later in the year another update will include the lives of seven early nursing reformers from the nineteenth century, further adding to our understanding of the development of nursing as a profession through these lives, and enhancing Oxford DNB’s coverage of influential women.

The launch coincides with ‘2020: The International Year of the Nurse and Midwife’, which celebrates professionals who play a vital role in providing our health services. Recent research which led to this important update was prompted by a wave of anniversaries including the centenary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), founded in 1916, and the introduction of nurse registration in 1919; and also the realisation that only a very small number of nurses in history are recognised by the public (or even by researchers). This Oxford DNB update is intended to set the record straight, and to introduce readers to this group of highly influential nurses.

Twenty individuals have been identified, and their biographies illustrate how inspiring these professionals were and still are, ranging from those who nursed in wartime, who worked in mental health and in workhouses. Their roles were equally diverse, and include publishing, as well as nursing professors, chief nursing officers and local community district nursing. Around 95 per cent of nurses in this group of twenty are women (reflecting the makeup of the profession) and include RCN presidents, fellows and founding members; the movers and shakers in the twentieth-century nursing world.

The initiative has been led by the RCN History of Nursing Forum in collaboration with the UK Association for the History of Nursing, and the biographies were written by both nurses and historians.

Although Oxford DNB is a subscription-based service, most public libraries across the UK subscribe to it and offer free access to their users, so you can access the complete set of nursing biographies (and the other 63,000-plus biographies held in the Oxford DNB) for free via your local library. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ that enables you to log in at any time at home (or anywhere you have internet access). Elsewhere, the Oxford DNB is available online in schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions worldwide. For more information about the Nursing Biographies Update, see