The Politics of Nursing History: a view from the chair

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This week we should all have been in Chichester at the annual UKAHN colloquium, but once again Covid spoiled our plans to meet in person.

To ensure everyone receives their yearly dose of nursing history, on Tuesday 29 June the Royal College of Nursing History of Nursing Forum and UKAHN held a joint online event: The Politics of Nursing History: Identities and Boundaries’. As a steering committee member for both organisations, I was privileged with the task of chairing the event. The evening hosted four internationally influential historians of nursing, Dr Anne Summers, Professor Peter Nolan, Dr Karen Flynn and Professor Dame Anne Marie Rafferty.


Each of the speakers were given eight minutes to talk about their work and especially their important and seminal texts.  They were given the question, ‘Why did you write it?’ Anne Summers was the first speaker and she reflected on her doctoral study at Oxford University and her 1988 publication, Angels and Citizens. She told us of the important question the inspired her to write about the First World War, ‘What happened before?’ ‘What were the precursors to these women joining as professional or Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses going to war?’ She reflected on the impact of early second wave feminism on her as a historian.  Peter Nolan followed with a moving talk on the realities for psychiatric patients in the 1960s and 70s, warehoused as they were and hidden from the world. But he reflected on the relationships that nurses built with these forgotten people, the laughter that sometimes infused the wards.  It was these things he told us that inspired him to write A History of Mental Health Nursing which was published in 1991.  The third speaker was Dr Karen Flynn whose 2011 book, Moving Beyond Borders: Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the African Canadian Diaspora foregrounded the lives of women of colour in nursing. Karen spoke eloquently of the work of black nurses in their own communities and her early recognition of this when, as a young woman, she met these nurses at church. As an oral historian myself, I was particularly interested in her analysis of the importance of oral history for underrepresented groups and the interviewee as the subject in history, not object of history. The final speaker was Anne Marie Rafferty, the outgoing president of the RCN and author of the seminal text, A History of Nursing Knowledge published in 1996. Anne Marie enthused the audience with a whirlwind of thoughts about the politics of nursing and the power of nurses. She moved us to think about the ways in which nurses can change lives and should be at the centre of health care policy.


The audience came from around the world, the UK, Europe, the USA and Australia. To those who got up in the middle of the night to join us – well done. The thanks of both the HoNF and UKAHN committees to Dr Sarah Chaney and Frances Reed for organising the event and ensuring all went smoothly. Please do join us again for the second of these panel seminar events at 5.30 (BST) on 14 July, ‘The Future of Nursing History’. Book here:


Jane Brooks

UKAHN communications officer