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
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.