Episode 16 - Ten Ordinary Nurses Who Were Simply... Extraordinary!


Published: 18 December 2016

Welcome to episode sixteen of the new Ausmed Handover podcast: Ten Ordinary Nurses Who Were Simply… Extraordinary!

Welcome to episode sixteen of the Ausmed Handover podcast. In this episode, I’ll be telling the stories of ten ordinary, everyday nurses who wrote their own extraordinary histories, yet are virtually unknown to the nursing profession today.


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Hello and welcome to the Ausmed Handover Podcast. My name is Darren Wake, and in this episode, I’m going to tell the stories of ten seemingly ordinary nurses who did some pretty extraordinary things. And I bet you’ve never heard of any of them. Well… maybe one.

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Throughout history, there have been countless occasions where nurses have had the limelight of fame shone upon them as a result of their deeds – or misdeeds – and they have enjoyed phenomenal popularity with the public. There’s Florence Nightingale, whom everyone knows, and… and… well … Well, there aren’t really that many more.

Now that’s not because nurses don’t do great things: they do, and they tend to do great things with surprising regularity, as I found out when I was doing my research for this episode.

But the one thing that is the common virtue of all those nurses who have done great things, is that they almost always shun fame – and often the fortune as well – that could have been a direct consequence of their actions.

That is, extraordinary nurses tend to do incredible things quietly, and then just get on with their jobs. They come to the attention of the public because third parties, like me, for instance, hear about them, are amazed, and then feel wholly compelled to tell their stories to the world, and that’s often contrary to the wishes of the subject themselves.

The list I’m going to present to you is arbitrary: it’s just ten nurses I plucked out of history that I found interesting… well, more than interesting, more like extraordinary. But there are literally a thousand more nurses written into the pages of history that have also done equally amazing things. But for me, these are my personal favourites, and I hope you find them interesting too.

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Violet Jessop

Violet Jessop was a nurse who was born in 1887 in Argentina, and she had a tough early life, losing both of her parents whilst she was still quite young, and some of her siblings to the tuberculosis plague that ravaged the world in the early 1900’s.

She became a nurse, and in 1910, she took a job on the White Star liner RMS Olympic, and just on a year later was on duty when the Olympic was rammed by the British warship HMS Hawke. The collision was catastrophic, and Jessop was on hand to tend to the injured, and thankfully, because of this, there were no fatalities. The Olympic limped back to port, and Jessop not long after applied for a transfer to what she believed would be a safer post on latest flagship of the White Star Line, the RMS Titanic. She was successful and was on board for the liner’s fateful maiden voyage.

Soon after on the 14th of April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and proceeded to sink. Like all the working class passengers and staff, Jessop was milling around waiting for directions when a woman ran past her from the first class section, thrust a baby into her arms and said “look after this” and then decanted herself into one of the first class lifeboats that were being lowered into the water.

Soon after, a crew member grabbed Jessop by the arm and pushed her into another overcrowded lifeboat. All night long Jessop sat in the overcrowded lifeboat and kept the baby close to her chest and warm in freezing conditions. She and the other survivors were rescued by the Carpathia the next morning, and still Jessop continued to care for the baby until the ship berthed in New York three days later. There, Jessop later wrote, a woman, presumably the baby’s mother, ran up to her, grabbed the baby by the arm, pulled it from her grip and ran off into the crowd without a word of thanks.

Jessop’s story doesn’t end there. After the Titanic disaster, she decided to volunteer her services as a nurse with the Red Cross and, as if tempting fate, successfully applied to work on the hospital ship HMS Britannic. And, as if to support the claim of the consistency of fate, soon afterwards, the Britannic struck a mine and was blown to smithereens. True to form, Jessop survived, but the lifeboat she was in was sucked into the spinning propeller of the sinking ship and she was clocked on the head and knocked unconscious.

Of course she didn’t die (she probably couldn’t), and Violet lived to the ripe old age of 83. Amazingly, none of these experiences put her off her career as a ship’s nurse; none of her later posts sank, blew up or were rammed.

Violet Jessop is on my list for her sheer tenacity and dedication to pursue the profession of nursing despite fate telling her, repeatedly, that perhaps sea-going nursing posts were not for her.

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Catherine Black

Catherine Black was King George the Fifth’s nurse, and when he was dying in 1936, really did something extraordinary. The King was close to death, and amongst those in attendance were Black and the King’s surgeon, Lord Dawson of Penn.

Black was rather strangely distinguished as the last person the King spoke to before he slipped into a coma, abusing her as she attempted to hold a glass of water to his lips.

Some things never change.

Now those were the days when the class divide and snobbery of English society really was at its peak, and someone from a working class background, like Black, simply didn’t question the instructions of someone who was both her professional superior, and a peer of the realm.

But around 11pm on the night of the 20th of January 1936, Black really challenged this state of affairs.

The King was clearly close to death – he was Cheyne Stoking, was cyanotic and completely comatose. Lord Dawson noted that death was imminent (and he wasn’t wrong), but so also was the midnight editorial deadline for the next morning’s edition of the times newspaper. If the King died after midnight, the editorial would be missed and his passing would have to be announced in the much less desirable and working class evening tabloids. If he died before midnight, then it would make the deadline for the Times, and the landed gentry and aristocracy of England would read about the death over their tea and marmalade the next morning.

At around 11:50pm, Lord Dawson was getting nervous, so he drew up a massive dose of cocaine and morphine, and ordered Black to inject it into the King’s jugular vein.

Black refused, and although she had no particular objections to easing the King’s suffering, she profoundly objected to ending his life simply because of an editorial convenience.

Lord Dawson immediately fired Black, and injected the king himself, with his death being noted at 11:55pm, just in time for Dawson to phone the Times editorial desk.

Black never mentioned this incident to anyone, and the only reason we know about it today is that Lord Dawson’s diaries were discovered and published in 1986.

Catherine Black is on my list because of her outstanding bravery and absolute commitment to patient advocacy.

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Rufaidah Bint Sa’ad

Of Bint Sa’ad we know very little, but what we do know makes her wholly remarkable. Bint Sa’ad was born into the Dani Aslam tribe of Medina, and was a contemporary of Muhammed, so she lived around 600AD. She was trained in medicine by her father, a noted Arab physician, and although she was indeed talented, the social conventions of the time prevented her from following in her father’s footsteps. So, she became Islam’s first professional nurse, setting up what would now be described as a hospital outside a local mosque and treating anyone and everyone that needed her services. Not only did she establish a care centre, she, and her bank of fellow nurses, reached out into the community to provide care in people’s homes. She cared for the elderly, the very poor and even set up a battlefield triage service in times of war, for both sides.

Bint Sa’ad is on my list because she was pioneering a modern model of healthcare nearly 600 years before the same model was introduced throughout Europe.

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Ellen Dougherty

Ellen Dougherty was the very first registered nurse in the world.

Although we think of England as being the place that nursing proper began, the real innovations that shaped nursing as we know it today all came from New Zealand. In 1902, New Zealand became the first country in the world to draft and pass legislation requiring that all nurses meet a common standard of education and register themselves with a governing body before they could practice.

Nurses practising at the time could submit a transcript of the education they had pursued during their career, that would be assessed and if they met the required standard, they would be registered.

Dougherty submitted her resume, and was the first nurse to meet the required standards, and thus became the first registered nurse in the world. Previously, she had also met the standards required for registration as a pharmacist, which also saved her little hospital a whole lot of money!

Ellen Dougherty is on my list because she was a pioneer, and understood that nurses needed continuing education to practice efficiently.

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Viola Pettus

Not a lot of information is known about Viola Pettus, but the scant information that I can find marks her out as a truly remarkable nurse.

Viola was an African American nurse who worked in Brewster County, Texas, and was especially active in the early years of the 20th century.

Around 1918, servicemen returning from World War I bought back with them an especially virulent form of influenza. In the ensuing pandemic, over 100 million people died worldwide, including over 675,000 Americans.

This particular strain of influenza was highly contagious, and clearly had a very high mortality rate, so the risk to healthcare workers was astronomical.

That didn’t faze Viola though, who set up one of the first specialist treatment services in the state.

Now, this is remarkable enough, but what made Viola extraordinary is that she showed no fear or favour regarding who she treated; she treated everyone the same regardless of their race, social class, gender, or political beliefs, and what was really remarkable about this is that she counted a very large number of senior Klu Klux Klan members on her ‘regular patients’ lists.

Viola Pettus is on my list because she was completely unbiased in her care, and showed that good care could transcend all social barriers.

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Mary Breckenridge

Mary Breckenridge qualified as a nurse in 1910 in New York, and returned to the state of Kentucky to work. With the outbreak of World War I, she served in France, and was impressed by the efficiency of the decentralised nursing service there that provided healthcare to people in rural areas.

She brought this model back to Kentucky, and recognising that children especially in the remote areas of this state were particularly vulnerable, started the Frontier Nursing Services.

By 1928, the service had 9 nursing outposts in various far flung and remote rural areas that previously had no basic healthcare or medical service available at all.

And this had a profound effect on the health outcomes of those regions soon after commencement. Between 1929 and 1979, nurses of the service delivered over 17,000 babies with just 11 maternal deaths – far, far below the national average, and even below the averages of some of the nation’s leading hospitals.

Breckenridge also recognised that many nurses wanted to work in these remote areas, but lacked the midwifery pre-requisite needed to provide birthing and antenatal care, so in 1938, she established the first postgraduate distance midwifery school in the state, so nurses could take on remote area jobs, and attain the necessary qualifications as a midwife whilst they worked.

Today, the Frontier Nursing Service continues Breckenridge’s legacy, and delivers care and training through it’s accredited educational institution, four clinics and it’s rural outreach service.

Mary Breckenridge is on my list because she made something good happen where previously there was nothing.

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Claire Bertschinger

We’ve all heard of Band Aid, right? The massive charity formed by Bob Geldorf that bought together countless music personalities, put on mega concerts, and the proceeds of which were used to provide food to the starving population of Ethiopia.

Well, Geldorf was inspired by a nurse called Claire Bertschinger.

In 1984, Bertschinger was working for the Red Cross running a food centre in Tigray Province in Ethiopia.

Bertschinger probably had the worst job in the world, and with extremely limited resources and faced with crowds of starving children numbering in the thousands, was only able to select 60 or 70 a day to feed, full well knowing that those she did not choose could very well die as a direct result of her turning them away.

Later that year, the BBC were in the area by chance and filmed Bertschinger, who told them about her plight. The documentary that emerged from those interviews was aired in October 1984 and was seen by Bob Geldorf, who was so moved and inspired that he started the Band Aid charity, which eventually donated more than 150 million pounds towards feeding the starving population of Ethiopia, probably saving some 2 million lives.

Despite this, Bertschinger has kept a relatively low profile, and whilst all of the singers involved in Band Aid have returned to their careers, she continues with her charity work in various desperate locations, and also teaches a tropical health course in London.

Claire Bertschinger is on my list because she was an agent of change.

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Edith Cavell

Everyone’s heard of Edith Cavell, right? Virtually every hospital has a wing or ward or school of nursing named after her, but what did she actually do?

Well, Edith was a British nurse, who worked as the Matron of a nursing school in Brussels at the beginning of World War I.

The area around Brussels saw some of the very worst fighting of the war, with appalling casualties on both sides. It was not uncommon for land to change sides on a regular basis, and Cavell, who had recently set up an independent hospital in the city, treated the wounded and dying of the German, French, Belgian and British armies without prejudice and was directly responsible for saving thousands of lives.

Soon, Cavell found that Belgium was completely overrun and occupied by the Germans, and several hundred British and French soldiers were taking refuge in her hospital. She helped to provide them with fake identity papers, and helped smuggle them to the Dutch border, from where they could make their way home.

The problem was, Cavell was a bit too outspoken about what she was doing and she soon attracted the attention of the authorities.

She was arrested, tried for abetting the enemy, and executed in October 1915. Her selfless bravery probably saved the lives of thousands, including several hundred from the very nation that ultimately executed her.

Edith Cavell is on my list simply because she was incredibly brave.

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Erna Flegel

In the early 1930’s, Erna Flegel worked as a nursing assistant to the German physician, Werner Haase, in the Humboldt University Hospital in Berlin. Haase was always impressed by her knowledge and her efficiency, and always demanded that she accompany him whenever he treated patients.

Haase left the hospital in due turn, and moved to a smaller facility in the Bavarian alps, where one day in 1934, he was presented with a patient who had suffered some minor injuries in a motor vehicle accident that had occurred nearby. His patient was none other than Adolf Hitler, who was so impressed by Hasse’s skill that he offered him a job on the spot as his personal physician.

Recognising a golden opportunity, Haase immediately resigned from his post at the hospital, and accompanied Hitler back to Berlin.

Life, in the meantime, carried on for Erna in her job at Humboldt, until late December 1942, when out of the blue she received a phone call from Hasse; she was now employed as the personal nurse of Adolf Hitler.

Haase had not forgotten her skills, and with Hitler’s slowly deteriorating health, needed someone he could trust to offload some of his lesser work.

Flegel, who had no political affiliations at all, realised that she wasn’t being asked if she wanted the job; this was the Fuhrer and she had no choice in the matter, and she dutifully showed up in Berlin and commenced her job as the personal nurse to Adolf Hitler in January 1943.

She continued in this role right up until Hitler’s suicide in April 1945, and was probably always in close proximity to him in the bunker that was his home and office throughout the last days of the war.

After Hitler’s suicide, Flegel was arrested by the Russians, who immediately released her, as although she was essentially a member of Hitler’s personal entourage, she was neither a member of the Nazi party, nor did she have any particular opinion about their politics. She was, the Russian’s noted, a through and through nurse, and nothing else.

On her release, she was immediately arrested by the Americans, who also released her a couple of days later after forming the same opinion as the Russians: she was a nurse, and her sole interest for the past two years had simply been Adolf Hitler’s health, nothing more.

Flegel went back to nursing and ultimately retired from the profession, dying in 2006. During this time, from the end of the war until her death, she never told a soul about the role she had played during the war, but in 1977, a newspaper obtained declassified documents that revealed that she had been Hitler’s personal nurse. Despite constant harassment by the press, she refused to give interviews until the age of 93, when she finally agreed to talk to the BBC. She gave permission for one interview only, and although she discussed life in the Bunker and the last days of the Reich, refused to discuss matters related to Hitler’s health. And despite the potential to make a lot of money from subsequent book sales, she continued to refuse, stating “I’m a nurse, and I am bound to protect my patient’s privacy, no matter who they are”.

Erna Flegel is on my list simply because, despite the obvious temptation not to, she upheld the principles of patient confidentiality right to the end.

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Cubah Cornwallis

Cubah Cornwallis was originally a slave who was owned by Captain William Cornwallis in Jamaica in the late 1700’s. She was also, by profession, a nurse. But she wasn’t just a nurse, she was a ripping good one.

Cornwallis had a soft spot for Cubah, and when he finally left Jamaica to return home, paid her a small sum in thanks, and she used this to purchase a small house in Port Royal and converted into a hospital.

She specialised in treating sailors, both physically and surgically, and became especially competent.

Her reputation spread, and the consistency of her good outcomes became so well known that she was often preferred, especially by sailors and officers in the Royal Navy, who sought her out in preference to the ship’s surgeon.

This popularity attracted such patients as Lord Horatio Nelson and Prince William Henry, who both pronounced her far better than any surgeon they had encountered, much humbler and far better company.

Cubah Cornwallis is on my list because she was a superb clinician.

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So that’s my list of ten ordinary nurses that were really very extraordinary. Individuals that loved the profession, did it well, and found themselves caught up in the pages of history, yet shunned the fame or fortune that was on offer.

What’s interesting to me about these nurses is that they don’t seem to be any different from the nurses I work with today, and the virtues of the profession are essentially unchanged since the times of the earliest nurse on my list. It’s a profession of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, on a daily basis.

This is the Ausmed Handover podcast, my name is Darren Wake, and thank you for listening.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the channel for future episodes, and please feel free to leave your comments and feedback for us – we always welcome your opinion.

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