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Ethel Gordon Fenwick (Hardback)

Nursing Reformer and the First Registered Nurse

P&S History > By Century > 19th Century P&S History > By Century > 20th Century P&S History > Social History WWII Women of History

By Jenny Main
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Series: Trailblazing Women
Pages: 200
Illustrations: 21 mono
ISBN: 9781399099585
Published: 15th June 2022



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A great nursing reformer, Ethel Gordon Fenwick was born before the age of the motor car and died at the start of the jet age. When she began her career, nursing was a vocation, unregulated with a dangerous variety of standards and inefficiencies. A gifted nurse, Ethel worked alongside great medical men of the day and, aged 24, she became the youngest matron of St Bartholomew’s hospital London, where she instigated many improvements. At that time, anyone could be called a nurse, regardless of ability. Ethel recognised that for the safety of patients, and of nurses, there must be an accepted standard of training, with proof of qualification provided by a professional register.

Often contentious, Ethel was a determined woman. She fought for nearly thirty years to achieve a register to ensure nurses were qualified, respected professionals. A suffragist and journalist, she travelled to America where she met like-minded nursing colleagues. As well as helping to create the International Council of Nurses, and the Royal British Nurses Association, she was also instrumental in organising nurses and supplies during the Graeco-Turkish War, and was awarded several medals for this work. Thanks to her long campaign for registration, a year after her death nurses were ready to take their place alongside other professionals when the National Health Service began in 1948.

"For a reader who has little knowledge of the timeline of the 19th and 20th century history, or the development of nursing into a recognisable profession, this book may be interesting and enlightening and lead them to wish to read more."

The North West History Journal - October/November 2023

As featured in

Scottish Field

An inspirational and fascinating biography of one of the most distinguished and important nursing pioneers of the last century.

Books Monthly

This book is written with a lot of facts and evidence which shows there has been a lot of research put into the book and it’s very well written.

Read the full review here

The History Fella

The book is well-written, includes black-and-white illustrations, and tells the remarkable life story of this nursing pioneer and reformer whose name deserves to be better known amongst healthcare professionals.

Read the review here

Dr Arpan Banerjee - Hektoen International Journal

This book is not what I expected, it was more, much more. This book was about Ethel Gordon Fenwick 1857-1947 in England and her fight to take nursing as a vocation to a profession. She started her calling early. At 24 she became the youngest matron (head nurse) at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. She fought to bring training, professionalism and standardization to nursing.. Ethel went head to head with Florence Nightingale and Eva Luckes each having their own idea on what nursing should be.
This time period was meticulously documented in an interesting read. Jenny Main surrounds the fight with what was happening in the world such as woman's suffrage, electricity, cars and airplanes..She writes almost in parallel: what is happening with nursing alongside world events and inventions. Reads like a nonfiction book due to all the historical facts embedded in the book.

NetGalley, Debra Labruna

If you have any interest in medical history, nursing, social history or women's rights, this is the one book you have to read.
Excellently researched it covers not only what she did (and she did so much) but the social and political background surrounding her, Britain as well as the wider world at the time.
The most important part, for me, it's written non-judgmentally. Facts are simply stated.

spoiler alert, This remarkable woman transformed nursing and turned it into a proper profession laying the foundation for modern nursing.

Read the full review here

ARRSE (Army Rumour Service)

"As a retired nurse, who trained at a London hospital in the early 1970’s I found the book to be an excellent read and would recommend it to anyone interested in the achievements of this notable and great lady."

Alison Wall - Local history/ nursing and public health groups

As a nurse myself, it was interesting to see how far we have actually come, in a fairly short space of time. It horrifies me that anyone could call themselves a nurse, back in the day, despite not having had any training or really having much of a clue generally. That it took such a long time to get registration for nurses in place, is really astonishing. If not for determined women like Ethel Fenwick, this probably would not have happened at all. It is apt, that she was the very first registered nurse :)

I enjoyed reading this book and the little stories of what was going on in history at that point in time were very useful as well.

NetGalley, Monica Mac

I have been a nurse for a long time and loved learning more about Ethel Gordon Fenwick. This book is packed full of information and reads better than a textbook. I love how the chapters are divided by time periods to capture such a packed time frame. There were so many things to cover that would have impacted her career and her lifetime. I never felt overwhelmed or confused and thought things were explained very well. I really liked the coverage of contemporary events during her lifetime as it brought tremendous perspective to many events. I never considered her a contemporary to Nightingale and loved how they viewed the registry so differently, yet both had a heart and a passion to advance the profession of nursing. A truly enlightening book for all lovers of nursing history.

NetGalley, Brandi Rawlins

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Jenny Main has written a book that perfectly combines the career of an intrepid worker on behalf of nurses, and in many ways the medical profession, and an impressive social history of the period. I enjoyed the combination, making this a book that I shall enthusiastically read again.

NetGalley, Robin Joyce

About Jenny Main

After obtaining her State Registration for Nursing at University College Hospital, London, circumstances took Jenny Main to Elgin, Moray, where she worked for many years in Dr. Gray’s hospital, Elgin. After injury forced her retirement, she became interested in local history and her District Nursing Officer suggested she write a short pamphlet about the unknown and unsung local celebrity, Ethel Fenwick. Of necessity, a pamphlet evolved into a small book! However, in 2002 a severe flood event in Elgin disrupted the final editing; the book was published locally, but felt unfinished. Since then, Jenny has written several local history books and was encouraged by nursing colleagues and members of the Ethel Gordon Fenwick Commemorative Project to revise and to introduce Ethel, her life, her times and her achievements to a much wider public at a time when the importance of the nursing profession is appreciated more than ever.

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