Kathleen Robb, who was the last nurse to hold the title of Matron at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), Belfast has died at the age of 97.
Described as “being an example of professional commitment of a higher order associated with personal courage and tenacity of purpose”, she was regarded as one of the most outstanding and notable nurses that Northern Ireland has produced.
Born in Belfast in 1923, Mary Kathleen Robb commenced training as a children’s nurse at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in 1941 and following qualification completed general nurse training at the RVH.
Having obtained a further qualification in orthopaedic nursing in England, she returned to Belfast to become Sister at the Fracture Clinic in the Royal. After a number of years in this post, Miss Robb resumed her studies in Edinburgh, where she qualified as a midwife at the Western General Infirmary and later obtained the Nurse Administration Certificate of the Royal College of Nursing. She was then appointed Matron at the City and Tower Hill Hospitals in Armagh followed by a period as a Nurse Planning Officer.
In 1966, Kathleen was appointed Matron of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Three years later, the Northern Ireland Troubles began and a demanding job was made infinitely more difficult by the fact that not only was the RVH a major centre for the treatment of the victims of the conflict, but was at the centre of some of the worst outbreaks of rioting.
For her work during this time Miss Robb was created Officer Sister of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1970 and was awarded the OBE in 1973. That same year, she was promoted to the new post of District Administrative Nursing Officer for the North and West Belfast District of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board. This position combined responsibility for community nursing and hospital services and retained her link with the Royal.
Miss Robb also found time to promote nursing in many other spheres. She was a member of various Hospital Authority and government committees, served on a number of working parties and was a member of the Northern Ireland Council for Nurses and Midwives. Her work also took on an international dimension when she conducted study tours in Canada, the United States, Israel and Finland.
Kathleen Robb has had a long association with the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland. She served as a Board Member, part of which as Board Chair, for 20 years. She also represented Northern Ireland on the RCN’s National Council. In 1977, her contribution to the work of the RCN and to nursing more generally was recognised with the award of Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing (FRCN) – the highest honour the College can bestow.
In later years, Miss Robb was a founder member of the RCN History of Nursing Network and remained active in this capacity for many years following her retirement. As many RCN members and colleagues will testify, she was a keen and talented photographer.
Her distinguished career spanned a series of major advances in nursing and medical science. Miss Robb commented: “I saw the introduction of penicillin in the children’s wards in the early 1940s and the progress and sophistication of treatments which mean that people who would have been in hospital for years suffering from certain diseases can now be treated in a matter of weeks”.
Her citation for the award of FRCN said: “Kathleen Robb provides an example of professional commitment of a higher order associated with personal courage and tenacity of purpose … a nurse who has demonstrated to an outstanding degree those qualities and attributes which accord with the highest traditions of the nursing profession”.
In 2003, she received the RCN Lifetime Achievement Award while in 2016 Miss Robb was centre-stage in receiving the Freedom of the City of Belfast on behalf of the nursing profession for service to the people of Belfast during the most difficult days of the Troubles.
Pat Cullen, Director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland said: “Kathleen Robb was a strong advocate for the nursing profession and strove to keep nursing at the heart of health care during very difficult times. She recognised the importance of ensuring that nurses were represented at the highest level and worked quietly but tenaciously to ensure that happened, particularly during a reorganisation of services in the 1970s.
“Even in her later years, she continued to take a strong interest in the profession. She would have been especially proud of the strength and courage that nurses are demonstrating, and the willingness to go the extra mile during this worldwide pandemic. We are very proud of her long association with the Royal College of Nursing and the exceptional contribution that Miss Robb made to nursing in Northern Ireland.”