A different kind of nurse

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By | From the Collections

World War I: doctor and nurse treating a wounded soldier. Wellcome Images No.L0009336 .

Most notebooks kept by nurses during their training were strictly utilitarian, and doubtless checked over by Sister Tutor – the recently catalogued volumes of Evelyn Warner’s lecture notes (MSS.8492-4), written up in a neat and legible hand during her courses in autumn 1948, with occasional sketches of instruments, are probably typical.

It was thus rather surprising to come across an item, described by the dealer as ‘Nurse’s Notebook’ (MS.8467), which was much more upmarket in appearance: a attractive little volume bound in cloth with a fleur-de-lis pattern, and with a decorative textile covering on the front, endpapers with an elaborate gilded pattern, gilt edged pages, and a decorative fly-leaf. Much less practical and workaday.

This incongruity is perhaps explained when the volume opens with a list of ‘Detachment L100’, the names and addresses of some 27 ladies, most of them resident in the smarter areas of West London. This must have been one of the London-based Voluntary Aid Detachments. These had been established as early as 1909 to fill gaps in the existing Territorial medical services, in order to ensure that in the case of war, trained and experienced medical personnel would be available without the need to maintain them on the strength during peacetime.

Already by early 1914, 1757 female detachments had been registered, but the great upsurge in recruitment came, of course, with the outbreak of the First World War later in the year. Because the VAD was a voluntary organisation, the women participating, at least in the initial stages, would have been those able to give their services for free, and therefore they would have been of a different social class to most women who took up nursing as a professional career. Accounts of the interactions between these two groups in the course of the war suggests that there were significant tensions.

The notebook records in a fairly legible hand lectures give by a Dr Ward. It is may be surmised, but is impossible to confirm, that this could have been Ronald Ogier Ward , a young doctor who had served with the British Red Cross during the First Balkan War of 1912, and who in 1914 was working in his father’s practice in Onslow Square in South Kensington.

Although the Wellcome Library holds a number of other items relating to VAD service during the Great War, these mostly consist of photographs, diaries, and memorabilia, and this notebook therefore provides a valuable supplement in indicating what their training consisted of.

Online sources guides provide further information on our other holdings on nursing and World War I.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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