2020 Year of the Nurse and the Midwife

How appropriate that in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic we are celebrating the contributions of nurses and midwives to healthcare and research across the world and marking Florence Nightingale’s bicentennial year. 


Nurses and midwives form the largest group within the NHS’ workforce and 1 in 5 are from BAME backgrounds.

Nurses provide frontline care and services across hospitals, primary and community care. They work in a myriad of clinical specialties, lead research that shapes health policy and patient management systems, and educate and train new student cohorts.

During pivotal moments in NHS history including the HIV/AIDs epidemic and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, nurses have worked in the most challenging of circumstances. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, nurses are caring for the sickest patients in the knowledge that the very act of caring is one that exposes them to the risk of becoming infected.  

Here we share stories from our Digital Archive that reflect the diversity of nurses and midwives and their vital contribution to every area of the NHS.


A nurse treating a patient

Florence Nightingale Lives On

Florence Nightingale brought early recognition to the field of nursing and founded the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas’ Hospital in London in 1860. Her legacy lives on in the memories of the generations who followed her.

Seven new critical care NHS hospitals have been set up since March 2020 as part of the NHS’ response to Covid-19. Named as NHS Nightingale Hospitals, they underline the continuing importance of Florence Nightingale in public understanding of the history of nursing and healthcare.

Many nurses who worked in the early days of the NHS reflect on the changes over time in the layout of the wards and how this impacted patient care.  Beryl Howard, born in 1936 in Rochdale, trained as a nurse during the 1950s at North Middlesex University Hospital. She describes the Nightingale wards— with 30 beds on both sides, recalling how capacity was increased by adding beds down the centre and in the corridors during a bad flu epidemic in 1955/56.


Nightingale ward patients in beds, being treated by nurses.

Typical Nightingale ward.

Listen to Beryl describe the Nightingale wards and how the dealt with the 1955/56 flu epidemic.



Nurse Training

Nurses, black and white image, in classroom

In the early years of the NHS nurse cadets learned their profession by ‘doing’. Cadets emptied bedpans or folded sheets and helping nurses change the patient often represented their first ‘hands on’ work.



Irene Bell, born in 1939 in Chester-le-Street started her nurse training in 1957 at Shotley Bridge Hospital in County Durham. After a year in the classroom she reflects on her first time on the ward and the realisation that “these people in these beds are reliant on you”. Here she talks about nurse hierarchies and the matrons who ruled the wards.

Irene later worked as a HIV/Aids coordinator in County Durham throughout the 1990s until her retirement in 2000, promoting sexual health and awareness of HIV/AIDS in the community. 


Listen to Irene reflect on her nurse training.


The ubiquitous nurses' uniform marked their entrance to the profession and made visible the hierarchies on the ward.

Jane Milne began her nurse training in 1964 at Leeds General Infirmary and talks about her experience of living in the Nurses’ Home where the routines were strict with 10pm curfews and boyfriends only allowed into the lobby. She describes the student uniforms were pink check dresses with aprons and floppy hats, senior staff measured the hats to ensure they were the required 18” in width.

For Joan Stevenson, a childrens' nurse from Horden, County Durham, her uniform was one of several superstitions held on the children’s ward.




A group of young female nurses pose in uniform

Listen to Jane Milne describe her nurses uniform.


Listen to Joan Stevenson, a childrens' nurse from Horden, County Durham, describes superstitions about the uniform, especially on the children’s ward.

Nursing Specialisms

Nurses trained in specialisms, ranging from orthopaedics to surgery, from geriatrics to paediatrics.

Patricia McCartney, born in Preston in 1946, completed her nurse training at Crumpsall Hospital in Manchester. Intensive care became a specialty in the 1950s and the first units in the UK were opened in the 1960s.

Crumpsall opened its first two bedded intensive care unit in 1968. Here Patricia reflects on her experience of nursing a ventilated patient whilst on an intensive care training course at Whiston Hospital in October 1969.



A black and white photo of the intensive care unit at Crumpsall Hospital, opened in the 1960's.

Image: Crumpsall Hospital Intensive Care Unit in its early days.

Listen to Patricia reflect on her experience of nursing a ventilated patient whilst on an intensive care training course at Whiston Hospital in October 1969.


Community Nursing

As the NHS expanded and shifted course during the mid-20th century, community and district nursing became a central part of healthcare.

Born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, in 1962, Briege Quinn is a nurse consultant for mental health and learning disability with the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland.

She started her career in Belfast hospitals, before the 1986 Mental Health Order, which stopped the treatment of people with addictions on psychiatric wards. Briege established the first community addiction team in North West Belfast. She reflects how, during the Troubles, the centre had two entrance doors for the different communities to access the services.  


Listen to Briege reflect on the challenges of providing care in the midst of conflict.


A hand holding a pill box


Robert Downes was born in Liverpool in 1956. He returned to education in his 20s to train as a nurse. Since 1996 Robert has worked in community HIV/Aids nursing in Liverpool and has seen many changes in the treatment and care of patients.

A stand-out career moment for Robert was his relationship with a reclusive patient who had chosen to stop his treatment. He recalls how his influence on the patient and his family was reflected at the patient’s funeral where they read out a poem about him.


Listen to Robert talk about this stand-out moment in his career.


Nurses from across the globe

Since its formation the NHS has recruited nurses and midwives from overseas, who in their interviews speak of the many challenges whilst forging their careers from racism and discrimination.

From the 1990s onwards, equal opportunities legislation and new recruitment regulations has addressed some of these inequities though much remains to be done. Yet despite the difficulties, our interviewees remained passionate about delivering excellent care and supporting the NHS.


Elaine Unegbu was born in the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba in 1941 and studied nursing in Enschede in Holland on a scholarship.

In the early 1960s, she came to Manchester where she worked first at the Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) and then the Northern Hospital as a staff nurse. She went on to become the first black ward sister in the Northern.

Like many ‘international’ nurses, her work and training took her to the UK and elsewhere, in this instance to Nigeria in the 1970s, where she developed a nursing school. In 1992 she returned to the UK and took up work in nursing home care.

She went on to volunteer at the Macmillan Centre at the MRI and the Health Authority. She continues to serve on various health and social care committees in Greater Manchester.  


Elaine Unegbu at her home on the day of interview

Image: Elaine Unegbu

Listen to Elaine reflect on the qualities she feels a nurse needs.



Yvonne Coghill is currently the Director of Workforce Racial Equality Standard at NHS England. She was born in Guyana in South America and moved to the UK in the early 1960s with her mother who worked as an auxiliary nurse in Bristol. Yvonne commenced her nurse training at Central Middlesex Hospital in 1977, qualified as a general nurse in 1980 and then went on to qualify in mental health nursing and health visiting. In 1986 she secured her first NHS management job and has since held a number of operational and strategic leadership posts. 

Recent image of Yvonne Coghill, on a train.

Image: Yvonne Coghill

Listen to Yvonne discuss her experience of being appointed private secretary of health and her developing interest in race equality in the NHS, as she became increasingly aware of the significant lack of BAME nurses in leadership roles.



In 1999, Dennis Singson was part of a ‘pioneer’ group of around 17 Filipinos who travelled from the Philippines to work in the NHS in Hastings. Now a Senior Nurse Practicioner and Nurse prescriber working in Mental Health, Dennis was the recipient of a national 'Windrush Award' in 2018 for clinical excellence.


Image of Dennis at work

Listen to Dennis describe his experiences of discrimination,his memories of arriving in the UK and induction to the NHS.



From Birth to Death: Midwifery and Palliative Care

Diane Chadderton was born in 1962 in Castleton, Rochdale. After completing a general nursing course in 1985 at Royal Oldham Hospital, Diane specialised as a midwife. The experience of giving birth to her own children at home, at a time when this was not common, inspired Diane to promote and develop birth choices for women, both at home and in hospital.  Diane was instrumental in the set up of the midwife led birth centre at Royal Oldham Hospital in 2012. In her interview Diane reflects on the positive impact you can have on families as a midwife.


Listen to Diane reflect on delivering the baby of a couple she had introduced.

Joan Stevenson, a children's nurse, worked with midwives caring for premature babies in the 1960s, when babies often did not survive.

She describes the vicar doing a Mother’s Day service for parents who had lost a baby.

She recalls how staff had a crib built, brought in hand and foot prints, and worked on creation of a memory book.


A picture of Joan in uniform, with a newborn arrival.

Image: Joan Stevenson at work on the children's ward.

Listen to Joan describe how the staff supported families with bereavement.



Palliative, or end of life, care allows the patient to die with dignity and live as well as possible until that point.

Claire Henry MBE, now a senior palliative care manager, describes the importance and process of palliative care, and its positive impact on the individual as well as their families.

She makes plain that palliative care is not depressing. Here she discusses the ‘good death’ of one of her patients, someone estranged from family, who “didn’t die with people who didn’t care about her”.


Listen to Claire talk about the difference you can “really make that difference” to someone’s life through palliative care.


NHS at 70 is currently collecting Covid-19 stories that speak to nurses’ resilience and fortitude in responding to the national crisis. 



Rohit Sagoo, a lecturer in children’s nursing trained as a nurse in the 1990s, becoming one of the first male Sikh children nurses. He founded a grassroots organisation called British Sikh nurses to break down barriers between the Sikh community and the NHS, supporting the community to access healthcare and talk about issues like organ donation and mental illness. In his most recent interview with us Rohit talks about the risk of Covid-19 to the BAME community, the challnges of this and the impact of this on the community.

Rohit recently signed up to return to frontline nursing during the pandemic if needed. He talks frankly about how this makes him anxious, but almost excited to return to hands on care, reflecting 'nursing is ...'

Listen to Rohit reflect on how he feels about returning to nursing during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Carolyn, a staff nurse on a renal ward, talks about the pace of change during the Covid-19 pandemic and shifts in the way space is managed in the hospital. She describes the "huge horrible impact on all aspects of patient care" from relatives not being able to visit to the practicalities of nursing with PPE.




Listen to Carolyn discuss how the the Covid-19 pandemic and how this has affected patient care.


Nursing and midwifery have changed enormously over the 70 or so years of the NHS. Now an all-graduate profession with new roles like nurse-practitioners, nursing expertise has expanded to support new technologies and an increased range of services and therapies. 

Ethel Armstong, who worked in the NHS from the beginning and featured heavily in the NHS70 celebrations, reflects on the introduction digital technology in healthcare, stating that when she is 'snuffing her last' all she wants is a "warm compassionate hand" and that there is "no app that can replace that". 

What shines through all these stories is how providing compassionate care for patients is the bedrock of nursing, and as just as important today to patients, their families and nurses as it has been since 1948.


The NHS at 70 team had both great pleasure and difficulty in creating this feature highlighting the diverse role of the nurse and midwife, as this represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amazing stories interviewees have generously shared with us.

You can discover more stories from nurses and midwifes in other features across the site and explore complete oral histories in our Digital Archive.

Thank you to all our volunteers and interviewees for their support!

Have a story to share? Find out more here.