Hidden in plain sight

Celebrating nursing diversity

Nursing is a diverse workforce

Nurses care for an increasingly diverse population. We are all different, and nurses see those differences every day, more intimately and personally than most. The history of nursing in the UK is an incredible story, rich with nurses from around the world, from different classes and cultures, an array of personal experiences and distinct life choices. Here at the RCN Library and Archive, we have begun the task of ensuring that this richness is recorded in history, expanding our collection to reflect this diversity and filling the gaps where we have no historical content at all. This journey has led to the exploration of previously untold stories, from the contributions of D/deaf nurses, to the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) nurses working in the UK, through to networks of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT+) nurses. The more nurses reflect their communities, the better prepared they are to meet the needs of those communities.

We have been asking nurses how personal experiences enhance their work as a nurse. What richness do nurses as individuals bring to patient care? Or perhaps, some personal life choices may be simply incidental to one's work as a nurse. Here is a snapshot of stories that reflect the true diversity of nursing past and present.

This is an original copy of Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole's 1857 autobiography Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. When the War Office refused her request to work as a nurse in the Crimean War, she went anyway, and set up the ‘British Hotel’ to care for soldiers. 

Right: Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands


A letter from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit in support of Umas nursing achievements in England, 1957

Brown Girl in the Ring Boney M, 1978, and school photo including Elizabeth then Furlong at 12 years old Wallasey Technical High School March, 1960

Carol WebleyBrown and Beatrice Brookwood Hospital, 1976

Carols Moving Up in the NHS course certificate, 1993

Dr Lola Onis belt buckle, 1978

Drawing of Carol studying hard for her Registered General Nursing exam, 1981

Mary Carol and Maureen at Greenwich District Hospital, 1984

Photograph of Uma Halder nee Dutta 1953

Thank you letter from Uma to the Secretary GNC and England Wales, 1994

Thank you letter from Uma to the Secretary GNC and England Wales, 1994

Uma sits with colleagues for Christmas lunch at Hammersmith Hospital, 1958

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole, 1857

My mother had no faith in me completing the training because I was so feisty and mouthy! But my Aunt had so much faith in me that she gave me my belt buckle as soon as I went to nursing school, before I even qualified. She said ‘You’ll be wearing this someday’ and I couldn’t let her down.

Dr Lola Oni came to the UK from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1965.

Many nurses recruited from overseas were directed to State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) training. As an SEN or ‘pupil nurse’, two years training was required, as opposed to three years for State Registered Nurse (SRN). The differences between the roles and responsibilities of SENs and SRNs made many enrolled nurses eager to extend their training to SRN. Often, new recruits would arrive in the UK alone, supported by colleagues in the same position. Nurses’ homes formed a strong base for tight friendships to grow.

International School Students outside the Royal College of Nursing, 1957

Boney M's track Brown Girl in the Ring reminded me that, until I was 18 and came down to London, I was always the only black child. I was the brown girl in the ring.

Nurse and Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu was born in Birmingham of Irish and Nigerian heritage.

Elizabeth Anionwu school photo, 1960

LGBT+ Case

Am I the only lesbian nurse Nursing Standard, 1995

Article Les Dames Anglaises with the Reims unit of the Comite Britannique British Journal of Nursing BJN, 1920

Cathlin and Victor Rn known as Hiddy and extract from BJN article both, 1920

Lady Hermione Blackwood and Cathlin du Sautoy with adopted children Yvette left and Victor Rene right, 1926

Lemons on the night shift, 2017

Lesbian nurse by Theresa M Stephany, 1988

Letter sent from Hermione to Cathlin, c1920

Pride paraphernalia, various years. In 2003 the RCN became the first Royal College to march at London Pride

The Unit at Reim with Cathlin and Hermione sat third and fourth from left and Victor, 1920

Vera Jack Holme, 1916

Walking cane and Norwegian folk art chair, early 20th Century

Wide Neighbours A story of the Frontier Nursing Service gifted to Hermione and Cathlin, 1952

Am I the only lesbian nurse? Nursing Standard, 1995

Is sexuality incidental to our work?

Or does it influence our relationships with colleagues and patients? LGBTQ+ networks are now common in the workplace and play a vital role in promoting equality in health care environments. Nurses are privy to some of the most intimate details of the communities they serve. Should health care professionals in turn disclose personal aspects of their own lives?

I felt I just had to do something – I couldn’t sit back and watch as this vile syndrome wiped out my community. I suppose I wanted to look after my own.

Paaie, a nurse who identifies as a lesbian and worked on a specialist AIDS ward in 1990. Interviewed by Dr Tommy Dickinson, 2017

Dr Tommy Dickinson’s ongoing study at King’s College London begins in 1981, with the first reported AIDS case in the UK. His research has uncovered a proliferation of queer nurses choosing to work in HIV/ AIDS care, showing that many LGBTQ+ nurses were driven to ‘look after their own.’ Sean, who lost his best friend to an AIDS related illness in 1996 was interviewed By Dr Tommy Dickinson in 2017. "Gay nurses were a godsend. I was just like, ‘Oh, thank god, we’ve got a gay nurse.’ Straight nurses were a mixed bag, but the gay nurses – gay men and lesbians – really were a godsend. There was a kind of unwritten understanding and compassion between us."

Lady Hermione Blackwood and Cathlin du Sautoy

Hermione and Cathlin met at Guy’s Hospital. During their time together in France working with the Red Cross, they adopted Victor and his sister Yvette, both French orphans. The family returned to London in 1922 where Hermione and Cathlin spent the rest of their lives together in Hampstead. They almost certainly wouldn’t have referred to themselves as lesbians since the term was not in everyday use. However looking back at the lives of these nurses, they clearly lived their life as a loving couple and formed a close family together.

Lady Hermione Blackwood and Cathlin du Sautoy, with adopted son Victor Rene, 1926.

Pride paraphernalia, various years. In 2003 the RCN became the first Royal College to march at London Pride.

We have probably all come across brick walls & barriers due to ignorance & lack of awareness…with the public putting us to fit into their box. This is where your own strength of character has to shine through at some point…I feel completely at ease with a disabled label if it helps me & others to be accepted & get on with our life

Dawn, RCN Peer Support Service member, July 2017

Deaf Nursing Case

Best Deaf Role Model awarded to Jackie Wan, 2016

Deaf peoples experience of voices toolkit, 2007

Face Time Skype and ReSound app

Fraught by Richard D France, 2016

Issues arising from a proposal for deaf persons to access nurse education, 1994

Letter from Dr Nick Kitson Consultant Psychiatrist at Springfield Deaf Unit to Ruth Sharman English National Board ENB, 1992

Mental health BSL vocabulary, 1997

Minicom typewriter, 1990s

Sign language in mental health, 1997

Telephone Induction Amplifier, c1978

Nurses see disability every day in the patients they care for. This can skew their ability to acknowledge their own care needs. Many face unique challenges as they navigate barriers at work and in life. This is particularly difficult for those whose identity as a nurse is seen to be at odds with their disabled identity. The social model of disability has had a major influence on society’s understanding since the 1980s when the term was coined. Before this, the medical model assumed that individuals were disabled by their impairments or differences. The social model says that individuals are disabled by society.