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Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into healthcare shortly before creation of NHS

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Thousands of extraordinary images of nurses delivering care before the NHS came into being have been made available to the public online to mark 70 years of the service.

The images provide a “fascinating insight” into how far healthcare has come in the past 70 years, according to those behind the project.

“The photographs reveal health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change”

Abigail Coats

The photographs, which show nurses and nursing students at work, rest and play, were only recently discovered in the Historic England Archive.

In total, 4,050 black and white prints documenting healthcare in Britain between 1938 and 1943 were uncovered at the national body’s archive in Swindon.

Thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust, 2,100 have been digitised as part of a year-long project to conserve and catalogue the entire set of images, which is titled the Topical Press Agency Medical Collection.

The photographs offer an invaluable and often mind-boggling insight into nursing and medical practices during the Second World War and immediately before the foundation of the NHS.

“These photos bring to life this fascinating period of medical history”

Chris Hassan

They record improvised wartime hospitals, blood donation and transfusion, infection control, burns treatment and early plastic surgery, alongside nurses in training and relaxing on their time off.

The photographs, which also document the different styles of nursing uniforms at the time, were taken by the Topical Press Agency – but how and when they were acquired by the archive is unknown.

Each comes with a typed description and extensive background information, including the date, location and details of the equipment being used and the procedures being performed. Many descriptions also include the names of nurses and doctors.

The collection includes an image taken in 1941 of nurses at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge practising the gas decontamination of a patient.

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

A nurse holding equipment for the transfusion of dried plasma in Southmead Hospital, Bristol, August 1940

The nurses, who are wearing gas masks and heavy, black protective clothing, are undertaking the exercise in a special gas centre erected in front of the hospital.

Another shows a fleet of district nurses on large bicycles, with baskets on the front, setting out from the Willesden Green District Nursing Association to visit patients. Staffed by 21 nurses, the association made 73,000 visits to patients in the borough in 1939, the caption notes.

Many of the photos show nurses utilising what was then state-of-the-art equipment, including operating an iron lung and using vast washing machine-like sterilisers.

One taken in 1940 at the Queen Victoria Hopsital in East Grinstead shows nurses looking after a burns patient, who is “comfortably resting in a saline bath” after his dressings were removed. A sister is checking the saline content of the bath, while an orderly checks the temperature.

In a scenario that would never be allowed today, the patient is allowed to smoke during the treatment using a cigarette holder to “keep the smoke out of his eyes”. He is also given warm milk and can read a newspaper during the session, which will last more than an hour, the caption explains.

In addition, the archive gives an insight into nurse training in the late 1930s to early 1940s, with one photo showing eager student nurses – who were undergoing training at York County Hospital in November 1940 – being taught the anatomy of the human head.

Another group of students can be seen learning how to bandage a torso using a life-size male mannequin with a neat pencil moustache in a photo taken at Atkinson Morley’s Convalescent Hospital in Greater London.

Meanwhile, other images show off-duty nurses enjoying themselves including waving from a merry-go-round and ice skating.

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

Nurses on the merry-go-round at a fair in Soho Square, London, 1939

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive, said the body’s archive was full of countless gems but described the images as “particularly striking”.

“They have the potential to expand our knowledge of wartime medical practice and revolutionary treatments and help us delve deeper into the history of healthcare,” he said.

Abigail Coats, archive cataloguing officer at Historic England, said working with the collection had been “fascinating and a real joy”.

“The photographs reveal health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change. But they also show staff having fun and unwinding after a long working day,” she said. “You can see just how far some medical developments have come, but also what has stayed largely unchanged.”

Meanwhile, Chris Hassan, from Wellcome’s humanities and social science team, said the photos offered a “wealth of insights and surprises”.

“Taken at a time of transition and rapid development for healthcare in the UK, these photos bring to life this fascinating period of medical history,” he said.

The photos can be accessed by anyone online and Historic England has also produced a series of resources for secondary schools to help students explore the history of medicine as the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary in July.

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

Student nurses taking notes around a patient’s bed, whilst a sister tutor explains the use of an oxygen mask, at Hope Hospital, Salford, December 1940

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

A sister tutor instructing student nurses bandaging the torso of a mannequin, at Atkinson Morley’s Convalescent Hospital, Copse Hill, Greater London Authority, October 1940

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

Nurses in protective clothing practising gas decontamination of a patient at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, September 1941

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

A patient in a saline bath, whilst staff work in the background, at the Queen Victoria Hospital, Holtye Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex, December 1940

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

A group of district nurses with bicycles leaving the Willesden District Nursing Association, 15 Park Avenue, Willesden Green, Greater London Authority, October 1939

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

Student nurses gathered around a sister tutor explaining the anatomy of the human head, at the Preliminary Training School at York County Hospital, Monkgate, York, November 1940

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

Four nurses pushing prams in single file along the driveway of the St Matthew’s Hospital Nursery School at Tyseley, Grimms Hill, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, April 1941

History of nursing

Rediscovered photo archive gives insight into nursing before NHS

Source: Historic England Archive

Nurses and students ice-skating in a chain formation on a tennis court at the London Fever Hospital, Liverpool Road, Greater London Authority, N1, January 1940

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Kyla

    I do so love the photo from the Atkinson Morley Hospital of the resusci-man and his 1940's moustache. Such a sign of the times. However I do keep in mind that this generation would have been the older Matron's when I trained in the 1980's and many of our patients were those who fought in the First World War.
    Thing's have come what seems a long way since then, but be aware Ladies and Gentlemen, what go's around comes around. Whatever next, I wonder! Could those hats really come back. I find myself actually jealous because some of the trainees had aprons with pockets - how innovative and handy!

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