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Nurses’ lives: the oral history of nurses

The oral history of nurses project captures the narrative history of three prestigious London hospitals from the perspective of its nurses and midwives. More than 300 interviews were generated for the project, featuring nurses and midwives who trained or worked between 1929 to 1990 at one of St George’s Hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital or St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Recordings from the project are available to listen to on YouTube.
Nurses Voices: Christmas
Nurses Voices: Wartime

The initial impetus for the project was the 250th anniversary of St George’s Hospital and Medical School. Kath Start, then Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education, recognised that there was little visible evidence of the nurses who had trained or worked there during that time. In collaboration with the St George’s Hospital League of Nurses and with initial funding from the St George’s Hospital Charity, project manager Carol McCubbin was appointed to capture what it was like to be a nurse in a large hospital during the period 1930-1990. The project went on to be commissioned by the Florence Nightingale Museum at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and St Bartholomew’s Hospital League of Nurses to undertake oral histories of nurses.

St Thomas hospital sister and student nurse 1956

The aim of the research was to create a collection of memories in order to compare and contrast experiences of individuals at these hospitals during a period of great social change. The project set out specifically to provide an account of the developments and changes within nursing and to produce a collective narrative of nursing and these historic institutions, viewed through the memories of those who worked there. The memories of nursing during this time reflect the changes that occurred and how they were absorbed, challenged or instigated within these London teaching hospitals.

Access to the nurses’ lives oral history archives

The nurses’ lives oral history archives are accessible, subject to licence and copyright agreements, on application to Professor Vari Drennan.

 Guys hospital nurse and patientWhy an oral history?

Hospital histories have traditionally concentrated on buildings and celebrated physicians and surgeons, but patients’ experience on the ward or in outpatients has more often been dependant on intimate contact with the nursing staff. The stories of those who feature so much in the treatment of patients, but who are so often unremarked in official accounts of the institution, can now be told.

“Oral history is predicated on an active human relationship between historians and their sources. In participatory oral history projects the interviewee can be historian as well as the source. This is a particularly popular method in projects where the primary aim has been the empowerment of individuals or groups through the process of remembering the past, with an emphasis on the value of process as much as historical product.”
Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair (eds), The Oral History Reader, Routledge, London, 2005

Publications

‘Nurses’ Voices, Memories of Nursing at St George’s London (1930-1990)’ was published in April 2010 and contains extracts from one of three nursing oral history research projects, conducted at St George’s Hospital. Find out more

Conferences

The International Nursing History Conference 2010, co-hosted by the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education was one of the largest international conferences on the history of nursing which aimed to showcase innovative and scholarly work on nursing history.

Read more about the research