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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Researching custom and practice

Researching a book is, as any author will tell you far more enjoyable than the actual writing of it. You can go off on all kinds of tangents and find out fascinating facts that may or most likely may never appear in your book. There is also the opportunity for  self indulgence and I have loved the chance to enage in a little reminisience of nurse training days.

In pursuit of insight and knowledge for Rituals and Myths in Nursing I recently visited two very different nursing museums at two prestigious London Hospitals. St Thomas’ Hospital’s Nightingale Museum gives you all the low down on Florence – some 3000 artefacts relating not just to her work in the Crimea and her drive to establish nursing as a respectable profession in the UK but also to her family and childhood. The museum opened in 1989 on the site of the original Nightingale Training School and, thanks to the diligence of matrons and others over the years much memorabilia has been saved for our interest and enjoyment now.

For me, the most fascinating Florence fact I learnt is just what an amazing architect/statistician Florence was. Never mind the nursing rules and regulations she set out in Notes on Nursing: What it is and what it is not. From her detailed scaled drawings of what was to become St Thomas’s hospital, down to the exact distance each bed on a ward should be from other for optimum health are something that should be heralded as truly ahead of her time.

St Bartholomew's Hospital Square
On the north side of the Thames overlooking the beautifully restored 18th century square designed by James Gibbs at the Royal and Ancient Hospital of St Bartholomew is the Bart’s museum . Small but packed with medical and nursing artefacts, the Bart’s museum is more intimate than the more sophisticated Nightingale museum offering less about the broader history of nursing but imbued with the very essence of what it is to have been a part of the hospital at any time in its history. It is not just my personal allegiance to the hospital – once a Bart’s nurse always a Bart’s nurse – but there is a warmth to the exhibition that is welcoming and friendly.

St Bartholomew's the Less
Visiting a museum that is at the very heart of the hospital gives the visitor an opportunity to see other things. Top amongst the Bart’s exhibits are the two magnificent William Hogarth paintings which hang on the staircase to the Great Hall and can be spied from the museum. But for me it is the tiny chapel of St Bartholomews's the Less that is just a few steps from the muesum, with its stained glass window commenorating the work of nurses during the second world war that is particularly special. 

Inside the museum I rather like the intriguing notes and records of weird and wonderful operations, photographs and records of stern looking matrons – Miss Gordon Fenwick (later Mrs Bedford Fenwick) who successfully fought for nurse registration for instance - and mutton chop whiskered surgeons with grand names recognisable from the wards once named after them: Percival Pott, William Harvey, Thomas Vicary. It is also rather strange to realise that history can feel very recent. A friend of mine was startled to see a replica of the uniform she wore in the 1970s at St Thomas’s showcased as a historical artefact!

As we grow older, history comes into focus. We want to put a marker down for where we were in the passage of time recognising that some of what we see even in our lifetimes future generations will consider remarkable. Medical advancement over the last century has been phenomenal and while ritual and myth still exist in nursing, there is less that is ritualistic as the work is ever more evidence based and the role highly technical.

Nurses are still required to be all things to all patients but their level of technical expertise is greater than a generation ago. A requirement that has largely gone unrecognised by the public, the politicians and perhaps by some of the profession itself. The custom and practice of nursing is certainly changing.

Rituals and Myths in Nursing
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