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Ethel Gordon Fenwick Nursing reformer and the first Registered Nurse

Jenny Main
Pen and Sword History, 2022, HB p186 ISBN 10: 1399099582 £22

Ethel Gordon Fenwick [nee Manson] was one of the wealthy, upper class women of the 19th and early 20th century who gave their enthusiasm, skills and money to social or political causes. Her twin passions were the professionalisation of nursing, and women’s suffrage. Training as a nurse in the 1870s, she was one of the ‘lady’ nurses who followed in the wake of the reforms started by Florence Nightingale a couple of decades earlier. In her short clinical career, she became matron of prestigious St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London at the young age of 24. Her marriage four years later precluded paid work but she spent the rest of her long life campaigning for suffrage for professional women and raising the standards and status of nursing. Key achievements were her often combative role in the fight for nurse registration which was achieved in 1919 and the foundation of the International Council of Nurses which remains a significant world-wide nursing organisation today.

The near legendary status of Florence Nightingale has cast all other nurses who made a significant contribution to the development of the nursing profession in Britain into the shadows, so it is always good to see texts that address this historical imbalance. In her book Jenny Main weaves a chronological account of Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s life with an eclectic narrative of various world events. She warmly acknowledges that the book liberally draws on previous academic texts, for which she had the authors’ permissions. With no in-text citations it is not possible to know whose work is being used at any one time, or the extent to which the author has added any new insights. Her bibliography also shows the world history to be drawn largely from various encyclopaedia. In addition, she had the support of Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s late grandson, who added personal memories of his grandmother in her later years. There is a wealth of primary sources related to her subject, for example the several Parliamentary Select Committees at which she was a significant witness, and it is a shame that additional primary research has not been conducted by the author to add depth to the discourse.

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.

Janet Hargreaves

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