Friday, 27 June 2014

The Pelican and its importance

This week, we explore the origins and importance of the pelican to medicine in Edinburgh and particularly to nursing.

The heraldic symbol of the pelican in her piety appears on the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) coat of arms, which comes from a pre-NHS fundraising appeal card from the 1930s (our reference LHB1/37/6 (9)).

 The RIE coat of arms, with the pelican imagery to the top middle

The pelican is feeding its young using its own blood and represents charity. There is also a suggestion in the 1941 edition of 'The Pelican' magazine (our reference LHB1/109A/17) that the bird may have been mistaken for a flamingo which feeds its young a blood-red secretion from its mouth. The symbol had been used for several centuries previously and in medieval times would have been interpreted as symbolic of the Eucharist.

The RIE School of Nursing introduced the pelican as a symbol for its badge in 1917, only given to students who had completed a fourth year of training in addition to their initial three years to become Registered General Nurses, presumably to emphasise the level of self-sacrifice required in their work. Holders of the badge have become known worldwide as ‘Pelicans’. LHSA contains a number of nurses’ badges gifted to us over the years including examples of the Pelican badge.

 The Pelican badge

'The Pelican' magazine was introduced from 1927 as a means of bringing together and keeping the older and younger nurses in touch with each other. In 1936, the RIE Nurses’ League was established to form a link between all the nurses. From this year, the magazine was renamed ‘The Pelican and Nurses’ League Journal’ and it is still published today. The image shows the cover of the first edition (LHB1/109A/1). With such a rich heritage, it is no wonder that the symbol of the pelican still evokes a sense of pride among those who have trained as nurses in Edinburgh.

The front cover of 'The Pelican' magazine

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