The British Empire Library

Variations on a Theme: Memories from Members of the Queen Elizabeth's Overseas Nursing Service Association (QEONS)

edited by Dorothy Park Pirkis

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Margaret A Brayton (MBE, RN, RM, RSCN, FWACN, FRSA)
Variations on a Theme is the third publication of the Queen Elizabeth's Overseas Nursing Service (QEONS). The first was Badge of Britannia by Pat Dickson, which described the history of QEONS which originated as the Colonial Nursing Association in 1896, and this book also included reminiscences from their overseas bases. The second, Angels in Africa by Bridget Robertson, describes her work in Nigeria, Seychelles and Zanzibar.

Part one of Variations on a Theme brings memories from the Queen Elizabeth's Overseas Nursing Service Association, which was established in 1966. The first president was Miss Florence Udell, CBE, a popular nurse leader, who was appointed Chief Nurse in the health division of the European office of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) during world war two. After the war she was appointed Chief Nursing Officer of the Colonial Office, and later Nurse Advisor to the Ministry of Overseas Development.

Part two is a fascinating compendium of the life of some 74 nurse.s/midwives and 4 doctors in 24 colonies. Some arrived by convoy during the second world war, many to West Africa on the Elder Dempster line ships, to the Far East and Pacific by ship such as the Dominion Monarch, and later by a variety of air routes with night stopovers, then ferries and trains at local level. The entries are printed under countries with a map to assist location and previous names. Their story vividly describes the challenges they met in a new country in providing nursing care in the colonies, identifying local personnel to become nurses/midwives, and developing necessary training programmes. They recognised the traditional patterns of care, particularly in midwifery, and to adopt alternative patterns of care to take account of resources and lack of equipment. For the most part they were SURVIVORS of the first order - but without the publicity of the man-made survivor television programmes of the 21st century.

Few could have anticipated the progress in the development of nursing and midwifery by the QEONS, and the growth of the profession, and care in the community to prepare for country independence. This included the establishment of schools/colleges of nursing/midwifery, legislation for Nursing/Midwifery Councils for Registration, and the setting up of Nursing/Midwifery professional associations. Local trainees were encouraged to take post-basic programmes in management and teaching, initially in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and Canada, and returned to establish appropriate courses in their own regions.

Equally important, the stories describe some hair-raising incidents when travelling during leave and work. Space will only permit reference to a few of these events:

  • Mavis Taylor's return to the UK with her husband for delivery in the UK, with premature twins arriving on the ship, with the aid of a midwife also returning on leave. Clothes for the twins were provided on reaching Freetown in Sierra Leone.

  • A letter sent to Phyllis Coleman in Kaduna, Nigeria from a local hair shampooer printed in full in Kaduna English.

  • Dorothy Gilbertson's landing from the MV Hygena medical boat in the Solomon Islands - "As a woman having to jump into a bouncing dingy to be rowed ashore, the men landed in nice clear waters with no rocks".

  • Dorothy's village shower - two pieces of slit bamboo, end to end, the stream entering one end and standing at the other, with a waist slip under the chin for privacy.

  • Vera Lentle's hilarious step-by-step climb of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

    From 1973 to 1993 it was my privilege to visit many Commonwealth countries as they became independent nations, as founder Nurse Executive Secretary of the Commonwealth Nurses Federation, and I witnessed at first hand the special bonds that had been developed with the pioneer nurse/midwives from QEONS who had served in their countries up to independence and beyond. A number are well known to me, and several are fellow members of the Women's Corona Society (now Corona World-wide). Congratulations are due to the editors: Jane Napier Bax, Genna Parsons and Dorothy Pirkis (Gilbertson) and the Chairman of QEONS, Catherine Campbell, for this publication.

    The publication Variations on a Theme is a must for those nurses and their families and their UK colleagues, and those who worked in the more remote areas of the colonies prior to independence and the new Commonwealth.

  • British Empire Book
    Dorothy Park Pirkis
    Jane Christine Napier Bax
    Queen Elizabeth's Overseas Nursing Service Association
    0 9539496 0 5


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