In this blog we hear from Lauren McKay who joined the CRC last year as a Modern Apprentice. Lauren will be telling us all about the fantastic new resource list on the history of nursing that she created.
You can find the list on our website: http://www.lhsa.lib.ed.ac.uk/exhibits/histnursing.htm
|Nurses on a balcony at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh|
My name is Lauren McKay and since September 2020 I’ve been working at the CRC’s user services as their current modern apprentice.
During the last January lockdown, the majority of our services moved to ‘remote only’ which meant I was working almost solely from home. Tasked with creating an online resource list for LHSA, I was sent a list of topics to choose from and found myself gravitating towards one topic in particular- the history of nursing.
Before starting this project, my knowledge of nursing history had only one portrait within its hall of fame and that was Florence Nightingale’s. At present, that same hall of fame has been embellished with the addition of many more portraits of proud pioneers and fearless women.
One of the women I was particularly captivated with was the nurse turned explorer Kate Marsden. She went to Siberia in the 1890s to investigate an alleged herb which was said could be used as a cure for leprosy and wrote the wonderfully titled book about her travels: On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers which I managed to find online through internet archive. The journey took her 11 months in total! Unfortunately, she did not find the cure she was looking for but instead set up a hospital for lepers in a town called Vilyuysk. She faced criticism, however, from people who did not believe the veracity of her exploits but worse still, her reputation was thrown in to ruin when rumours started to spread claiming that Marsden was only doing these good deeds as a means to cover up for her homosexuality and financial schemes. This scandal erupted around the same time as the doomed Oscar Wilde libel trail, a time in which ignorance and hysteria surrounding sexuality and gender roles was particularly rife.
One highlight in terms of a visual resource was the nurse Ethel Miller’s digitised scrapbook which contains autographs, poems and sketches done by the patients at Craigleith Military Hospital. It’s a truly precious item as there is something very moving about virtually flicking through the sketchbook, reading the often humorous poems and admiring the cartoons:
You can find a digital copy of the scrapbook here: https://bit.ly/2RSeM0d
The auld lichts of the " profession " sniffed the air in disdain at " them Bloomsbury nurses," to whom they probably added the epithet " bloomin' " not in a complimentary sense. " If I was you, I wouldn't send for the parish doctor," counselled one of the fraternity to a poor woman with a wound in her leg ; " because the first thing he'll do will be to send for one of them district nurses from Bloomsbury Square, and if they come here you'll have to keep your room clean and open your winder, clear out the things from under your bed, and they'll turn the whole place topsy-turvey so as you won't know your own home ; and you'll feel just as if you was in a horspital
The irony is that the individual is describing with contempt what we would now perceive as basic good cleanliness practices. It’s quite interesting to note that such practices were not always considered welcome, or even good for that matter.
Nursing, as I now know, played a huge role in the improvement of medical practices, progresses in public health, and individual nurses even played a substantial part in advancing recognition of women’s rights. Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire, godchild to Queen Victoria, was a VAD nurse during WW1 while also an incredibly outspoken suffragette and activist. Or Gertrude Townend and Catherine Pine, who both helped set up a nursing home for suffragettes recovering from force feeding and imprisonment. I was expecting to discover a lot of incredible women, for a profession largely championed by women, but I found myself in complete awe while uncovering their stories. Their sheer intelligence, skill, resilience, bravery, and their collective drive to improve the world and care for its people was simply put: breath-taking.
I could go on writing about the resource list all day, but I hope that what I have highlighted gives an idea of the variety of resources which are included. I was surprised by the wealth of information available online and I believe that the list will be a useful tool to consult as starting off point to anyone researching nursing history remotely.
While fully immersed in exploring resources for the list I began to understand its purpose as being threefold:
· To debunk the many myths surrounding nursing, such as the common held misconception that nursing has always been a vocation rather than a profession which required the traditional ‘feminine touch’ and the self- sacrifice that is believed to accompany it (especially harmful when in popular culture male nurses are portrayed as emasculated). Nurses fought for decades before their educational needs were met and it is because of this that today they are trained to be highly skilled and resourceful individuals.
· To discover history’s incredible pioneering nurses and the diverse roots of the profession and how it evolved (the resource list covers UK nursing predominantly).
· To disseminate knowledge remotely in times of COVID-19, when research is made particularly difficult as in person visits have decreased due to safety measures.
I am so thankful to LHSA for this opportunity which has enriched my knowledge, respect and appreciation for this profession- I’ve found a new passion!