Carolyn Gibbon, Independent Scholar The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 7 (1) 2019

This year’s Colloquium was held at the University of Chester, on 10 July. The programme began with a welcome from Claire Chatterton (Convenor) and Elizabeth Mason-Whitehead (University of Chester).

A number of themes ran through the day, starting with papers about the First World War. Sue Hawkins (Kingston University) gave a thought-provoking talk about the role and work of VAD nurses in a Red Cross auxiliary hospital in Holmfirth, in the North of England. This paper is a part of a much wider study but challenged the stereotypical version of the VAD so often seen to be represented by middle-class women, such as Vera Brittain. Helena da Silva (IHC-FCSH-Nova, Lisbon) reviewed attempts to establish a nursing corps within the Portuguese army after Germany declared war on Portugal in March 1916. A relief Society in the form of the Crusade of Portuguese Women attempted to emulate the British model with limited success due to low levels of literacy amongst women and political upheaval within the country. The final paper in this session came from Keiron Spires and Jack Potter (QARANC Association Heritage & Chattels Committee) who compared the diaries of British and German Military Nurses. What emerged were commonalities irrespective of the nurses’ origins, such as the emotional toll of caring for very young soldiers; the novelty of working away from home; the volume and pace of the work, and the ethics of ‘patching up’ soldiers to be returned to the front.

A second theme about the wider profession included Séverine Pilloud and Cécilia Bovet’s (HESAV, Lausanne) analysis of articles in the journal ‘Source’ about nurses’ demands for an 8-hour working day in 1930’s Switzerland. Eventually the shorter day was introduced, but it was not until the 1950s before better working conditions, including a 3-week holiday entitlement, were introduced, Advancing medical technology and its relationship to the professionalisation of nursing was explored by Catherine Sharples (University of Malta). Her work focused on the period 1882-1996 and illustrated some of the problems a small island with only one hospital experienced. She concluded that the level of nurse professionalisation was due to the passage of time and external influences, rather than nurses themselves being active participants in the process. Prior to lunch Sarah Chaney (Queen Mary University of London/Royal College of Nursing) introduced us to Mind-Boggling Medical History, a card game devised as an educational resource, to help students unravel the complexities of medical science and healthcare ( After lunch, Kay Nias (University of Exeter) explored the emergence of physiotherapy as a profession independent from nursing in the UK. This was based upon analysis of the records of the Society of Trained Masseuses and demonstrated how the value of physiotherapy became better recognised as a result of WW1. Paul Horan (Trinity College Dublin) gave an entertaining presentation about Nurse Belinda Kearns, who was the founder of the Irish Nurses Association and who played a significant role in the development of the Irish State in the 1916 uprising and as one of six female founders of the Flanna Fail political party.

A final theme examined the contribution of nurses before the reforms of the mid-nineteenth century. Erin Spinney (Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford) discussed the role of nursing on British hospital ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, during the wars with France. The paper considered the employment, role and work of nurses on these ships during the Napoleonic Wars. Alannah Tomkins (University of Keele) then presented research about nursing before Nightingale, looking at the infirmary and hospital nurse before 1820. This research aims to reveal the working experiences and local reputations of sick nurses before the nursing reform movement began, and to challenge the stereotype of the drunken and incompetent nurse used by mid-century reformers.

The Colloquium concluded with Helen Sweet praising the quality and range of papers and making the point that it was 100 years since the end of the First World War, when the world faced an uncertain future. Similarly, today, we are facing an uncertain future and the need for humanitarian nursing has never been greater.