In recognition of the incredible diversity of our nursing workforce, the RCN Library and Archive shares stories from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) nurses from decades past

The history of UK nursing is incredibly diverse. Patients here have benefitted from the expert care of nursing staff from all around the world, spanning classes, cultures and countries.

In 2018, we marked the 70th anniversary of the NHS and of Empire Windrush, the ship that brought many nurses from the Caribbean to work in the newly formed NHS. Nursing staff have also come to the UK from India, Nigeria, the Philippines and more, to study, train and work.

The RCN Library and Archive team delved back though its collections and found many interesting photographs, stories and artefacts – not only of the Windrush nurses, but of BAME nurses who arrived at different times and from different countries.

Three BAME nursing students sit together at desks in a classroom

Above: International students during a class at the RCN

Some of these now form part of Hidden in Plain Sight, an online exhibition celebrating nursing diversity, compiled by members of the RCN History of Nursing Forum and RCN Library and Archive staff.

Within the collection are letters and snippets of stories from BAME nursing staff. In the wider archive, there are also many amazing photographs of nurses from the 1950s, 60s and 70s – attending training at the RCN, working at hospitals around the UK and socialising with one another. Many of the subjects of the photos, however, are unnamed.

“It’s lovely to see, but we don’t know very much about them,” says Raz Akram from the RCN Library and Archive team. “If people see this, they might know who the person is. They might be able to fill our catalogues with information or donate items from the same nurses.”

The RCN archive also contains oral histories – recorded interviews with inspirational nurses. “Our oral histories are very moving,” says Raz. “Personal stories really resonate and it's always important for people to tell their stories themselves.”

A group of four laughing nurses climb on a car

Above: People from different backgrounds and areas of the world were brought together to study and work as nurses

Honouring the diversity of nursing

The History of Nursing Forum is working to increase the representation of nurses, from all backgrounds and specialties, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). In the last year, the forum has helped to coordinate the inclusion of nearly 30 nurses. 
Following this success, they’re currently compiling a list of names for their next submission and are asking for people to send in ideas for consideration. 
Chair of the forum, Stuart Wildman, says: “The entries in the ODNB are currently dominated by English, white, female nurses with an adult and/or military background. We want to see this change to be more representative of the true diversity of nursing.
“We’re looking for leading nurses who have influenced practice, education, research or management within the UK. We would particularly like to include nurses from underrepresented backgrounds, geographical locations and branches of nursing.”
Read more on Stuart’s blog.

Visit the Hidden in Plain Sight exhibition.

Pictured below: A large group of students on an overseas introductory course pose outside the RCN headquarters in the early 1960s

Voices from the archive

Dr Neslyn Eugenie Watson-Druée 

Born in Jamaica 1949
Came to the UK 1969

“On my first morning at the training school, I was waiting for there to be daylight to get up and of course in March if it’s a cloudy day you don’t get daylight until 10.00. I went back to sleep and by the time I woke up I had missed breakfast and lunch. However, in those days there was always milk and bread. One of the girls made me some toast and said: ‘Now you mustn’t miss supper’. By then it was dark anyway. That’s my introduction and the next day I started work.” 

Portrait of Dr Neslyn Watson-Druee

Pictured above: Dr Neslyn Eugenie Watson-Druée 

Diane Morarji

Born in Trinidad 1958
Came to the UK in 1975

“I was age 17: all the way here on my own, but I was determined to go… When I arrived, all I had [was] my suitcase in my hand. The matron said: ‘This is your room, nurses’… The English accent was strange to me so I had to listen carefully to understand what people were saying, but it was like a challenge. I felt immediately very well off, I didn’t feel isolated… I just thought: ‘OK, this is nice, this is food I’ve never seen before, I’ll give it a go.’ I loved the food! I’d never seen puddings ever – I was like: ‘Gosh, pudding, that’s nice.’”


This article was first published in October 2019

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