Helen Sweet, University of Oxford The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 8 (1) 2020

This charming little paperback by Susan Cohen is part of Amberley Publishing’s new ‘British Heritage’ series. Susan takes her reader on a whistle-stop historical tour of British nursing’s history focusing almost exclusively on the C19th and C20th. This very easily readable introduction to nursing’s history is intended for nurses with a casual interest in the history of their profession, school history students, genealogists or possibly for the more serious historian in providing a background from which to leap off into more in-depth historical research in this field.

There are eight short chapters, each of which is extensively illustrated. The first is a well-written introduction, although taking us through the very early history of nursing up to the nineteenth century in just four sentences on p.1 is, to my mind, not doing the subject justice. The second chapter, which is on the development of district nursing, stands out as particularly interesting and well informed – possibly reflecting Cohen’s similar works specifically on this subject, viz. The District Nurse and Images of the Past: The District Nurse. Other chapters focus on nursing in the First and Second World Wars and the inter-war period, whilst chapter 3 takes a brief look at ‘The Dawn of a New Profession’, but taking the perspective of the ‘ordinary’ nurse as much as the elite on both sides of the battle for professionalisation. As a result, throughout the book, Cohen draws considerably on her understanding of district nursing history and the wealth of imagery made available to her by the Queen’s Institute for District Nursing. The development of nursing as a profession and the role of the Royal College of Nursing and the Queen’s Institute are well described and personal testimony of pay and conditions of service, details of training, demands of military-style discipline on the wards and the reasons for particular attention to what might seem in retrospect as petty detail, are outlined well.

The seventh chapter, ‘The NHS and Beyond’ addresses the opening up of the profession to ex-servicemen and of the State Enrolled status, Project 2000 and the first university degrees in nursing. Again, this is covered in such few words that it becomes somewhat frustrating – of the seven pages, two are completely pictorial whilst the others describe a period of massive change stretching from 1945-2019.

Whilst the final pages of the book offer basic advice for those wishing to further their research in nursing history, it is a shame there are no references, endnotes or bibliography and that the ‘Recommended Reading’ lists only six books mostly confined to institutional histories. Sources of images are mostly given as e.g. ‘Wellcome Library, London’ or ‘Peter Maleczek’, but not fully referenced beyond that and there seem to be quotes taken from oral histories or memoirs but these are also not referenced, which is disappointing.

Despite these remarks, there is much to recommend Nurses and Nursing, not least the wealth of images upon which Cohen has drawn, and her enthusiasm for the subject. As a fascinating pictorial history of nurses and nursing in Britain, I can recommend this book.