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A Nurse in Time: my life as a trainee nurse in the 1930s

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Title: A Nurse in Time: my life as a trainee nurse in the 1930s

Author: Evelyn Prentis

Publisher: Ebury Press, 2011

Reviewer: Jenni Middleton, editor, Nursing Times, EMAP


What was it like?

What’s joyous about this book for any nurse who has ever shuddered to hear themselves described as “an angel” or “hero” is that the author does not refer to herself as “a natural nurse” and in fact, amusingly recounts how she was forced into the role just because her mother thought it was a good idea, never mind her lack of aptitude or interest.

Romantic notions of having been always destined to nurse are dispensed with as quickly as those of mopping fevered brows – on her first day Evelyn Prentis had to scrub bedpans, graduating to scouring U bends of toilets on day two.

The book is a lovely canter through the training of a nurse in the 1930s, with tons of nostalgia – the joy at her discovering her first electric light switches at the Nottingham Hospital where she worked, the hatred of wearing “combinations”, an unfashionable style of lingerie for the time and the importance of how to get noticed by boys and get asked out on dates – and then how to get out of – or back in – nursing quarters outside of “off duty” hours.

But it is probably her relationship with the sisters and the matron that will ring most bells with nurses whenever they trained. The fearsome sister that strips the beds in the nurses’ quarters if they are not made to her exacting standards and the matron who can make you weep with trepidation at the mention of her name.

What were the highlights? 

Despite the tangible fear of these matriarchs expressed by the author, there are episodes of humour – getting covered by all sorts in the sluice, trying to get some of the more racy nurses back in undetected by those in charge of policing the nursing quarters and making jokes at the expense of the patients.

Strengths and weaknesses: The humour of the nurses who try and avoid being at the beck and call of their patients “After meals is the only time I allow [bedpans] to be given to patients and if anyone wants one in between they must wait. I won’t have the patients pandered to on this ward,” one sister tells the author. While another trainee nurse chastises a patient for taking up too much of her time and being too annoying for trying to die during her shift because she “hadn’t got the time for that today’.

Who should read it?

Nurses who trained in the 1930s, 40s and 50s who want to relive their previous experiences, especially those who used to live in nursing quarters, and those training to be a nurse now to compare their current situation. But only if you have a sense of humour and aren’t too squeamish – there is a particularly sad bit about women who are in the Female Chronic ward (gynae) for having tried to carry out their own homemade abortions using crochet hooks – though that is brief. It’s funny and joyful, and I am sure it will make a lot of people laugh,

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