A few of my mum’s standout memories working as a nurse at Mount Gould Hospital, Plymouth in the 1950’s.

The Korean war had just begun, Polio Vaccine was saving thousands of lives, and the legends of Lego and Sputnik were just about to be deployed. This was the time my mum did her nursing training at Mount Gould Hospital, an orthopaedic hospital specialising in the care of TB patients.

As you will soon see, we have come a long way in our nursing care of patients since the 1950′s. Sure the technology has made significant advances, but what about the quality of essential nursing care that nurses deliver?
And what about the professional recognition and cultural standing of what still remains a female dominated profession?
I’ll let you be the judge.


Nurses residence 1957.

Still legally a child, my mum arrived to begin her training by moving in to the nurse’s residence at Mount Gould Hospital.
New nurses were accompanied by their parents who had to ‘sign them over’ to the care of the ‘Home Sister’ (the age of consent was 21 yrs back then).

From that time onwards a special pass was to be obtained in order to leave the residence, and that could only occur on the nurses days off.

Once a month a late pass was issued allowing the nurse to stay out till 10.30 PM.
Life in the residence was highly regimented and tightly controlled. Your room could be inspected for cleanliness and tidiness at any time. A single lockable draw was the only private space you were permitted; all other draws and cupboards were regularly inspected.
Males were forbidden in the residence at any time (OK mum, whatever you say.)

After progressing to her second year of training, mum was allowed to live out.

My grandfather gave her a vintage 125cc Royal Enfield motorbike to make the 30 minute drive from their house.
On her second day of living out she was called before the Matron.
After arriving for work on the Enfield she had been spotted wearing trousers on hospital grounds. Most un-nurse like indeed.
After some interventions from my grandfather, mum was permitted to ride the motorbike, sneak in through a side gate, and proceed directly to a shed where the garden equipment was kept. Here amongst the fertilisers and shovels, she could change into uniform and proceed across the hospital grounds with a little more professional decorum.

Pecking order.

Putting aside the whole doctor-nurse power dynamics for a moment, there was a definite pecking order within the nurses own ranks. Junior nurses were expected to hold doors open for the seniors, and sitting room chairs had to be surrendered to those higher up in the pecking order. Christian names were not to be used whilst on duty.
All nursing activities on the ward were directed by the Ward Sister, known affectionately as The Dragon.

Junior staff were allocated the menial jobs such as cleaning out the sputum mugs and scrubbing the bedpans. This was a TB hospital and every single patient was allocated a sputum mug.

Mum vividly flashes back to the sound of that ker-plop as the contents of the mugs were tipped like gobs of stretchy green-yellow mozzarella into the sluice.
As you progressed through the ranks of seniority, you inherited the more sought after jobs. Which would pretty much be anything that didnt involve sputum mugs.

Ward duties.

Rubber gloves were considered “extravagant and uneconomical” and were only used in operating rooms.

Universal precautions consisted of keeping your fingernails short and your mouth closed to avoid the splattering.

Every single piece of equipment from linen to sputum mugs, was stamped with the name of the ward. Once a year a ward stock take was held and God help you if a single item was not accounted for.

Anything broken was to be paid for by the nurse responsible.
At the beginning of each shift nurses signed on in a large book. The shift lasted until everything was done, at which time you signed out.
Three was no such thing as overtime.

The pan round.

The nurses commencing night duty began by pushing a trolley holding a large urn down the length of the ward.

Each patient was settled for the night with a cup of hot coca or tea. Once the round was completed the cups were quickly collected and washed.
No sooner had they finished their cocoa, the patients were subjected to ‘The Pan Round’.

Patients were not permitted to use the bedpan when nature called, but had to wait for the allocated pan rounds which were spaced out at set intervals.

So imagine, a long thirty-five bed Nightingale style ward. A single screen was placed across the door at the end of the room. No curtains around the beds. No-siree.

Each patient was then placed on a bedpan, where they sat balanced, eyes front until the job was done. Hours and hours of pent-up solids and gasses suddenly released with a mass-synchronised relief. The resulting olfactory and auditory expungements wafting down through the corridors in chorus.

Whats more, the wards back then did not have toilet paper, but instead used a material consisting of “wiry coconut fibers” called Towa.
Bums were tough back then.

Wiping of bottoms by nurses was strictly hands on, no gloves.
A large trolley (pushed by a junior nurse) then transected the ward, collecting the full pans and transporting them very carefully to the sluice room. Lock up a wheel on the trolley, and a catastrophic avalanche of metal pans would crash to the floor.

The sluice room.

Here the most junior nurses would spend many a miserable hour. No mechanical flushes or sterilizers here. The Sluice Room was a huge white tiled room centered with a bath sized sink.
The room was lined with shelves containing rows of glass jars, test tubes, spirit lamps, wooden tongs, and pipettes.

Esbach’s solution, Tinc Guaiacum, Benedict’s solution, all used in the testing of various bodily excretions.
Urine was mixed and boiled, adding a pinch of this and a smidgen of that to test for albumen or sugar or bile pigments or pus. Once a week every patient had their urine tested. The nurse allocated this task would find herself surrounded by a bubbling, steaming rack of 35 labelled test tubes.

At any time you could be summoned by the Ward Sister and you would have to tell her every patients name, diagnosis, treatment and test results.
Failure to be familiar with this information was immediate and swift: death by sluice room.


The only oxygen available came from large cylinders. These were connected by a rubber hose to a Woulfes Bottle . The oxygen passed through a glass tube into the bottle that was half filled with warm water to humidify it. When used, this system required constant tending to keep the warm water topped up.

All intravenous solutions came in glass bottles, the IV tubing was rubber with a glass drip chamber to monitor the infusion rate which was controlled via a metal bulldog clip.
After an IV set was finished the tubing was boiled in water, cleaned, and used on the next patient.

Surgical rubber gloves were only used in theaters. They were then washed inside and out, tested for holes, hung to dry, powdered and steam sterilized for re-use.

Morphine came in granules. Little tablets of the required strength were placed on a teaspoon and a few drops of sterile water were added. The spoon was then held over a small spirit lamp until the tablet dissolved, after which it was drawn up into the syringe with the remaining sterile water.

The mortuary.

The Mortuary was a separate building on the hospital grounds. To transfer a body, it was placed in a bed with a hidden recess, that was then made up to look like an empty bed.
This is pretty much the same way we transport bodies today , although the effect of concealment was somewhat spoiled back then. After the body was carefully hidden, the bed was draped in a Union Jack as a mark of respect for the dead!

In 1957 it was actually a criminal offense to attempt to commit suicide. If a patient was admitted after attempting to self harm they would have a police officer at their bedside for the duration of their admission. As soon as they were well enough to be discharged, they were arrested and taken to jail.

Management of cardiac arrest.

They hadn’t invented ICU or CCU yet and the management of cardiac arrest was very basic.
If a patient arrested on your ward, you were to administer a sharp blow to their chest and then drag them out of bed, face down on the floor. You then administered Schaefers Method of Respiration, which as far as I can tell, essentially consisted of giving them a vigorous back massage.

Doctors were summoned to attend an arrest by a series of coded flashing lights on panels located around the hospital. If the doctor did not notice their own particular code then they never arrived. The nurses dealt with it.
If a doctor did arrive the cardiac arrest protocol was to administer intra-cardiac Adrenaline and intravenous Coramine to “stimulate the respiratory system and blood pressure”.
During her entire time as a student nurse, my mum never witnessed a successful resuscitation.


No sex please, we’re nurses.

At the end of each year, the hospital held a grand Christmas Ball. Trainee officer cadets from the neighbouring naval base were invited. Lower ranks, of course, were excluded. The whole evening was chaperoned by senior naval staff and The dragon Matron.
No-one was permitted to leave the hall and at the end of the evening the Navy were counted back on a bus and returned to the base.
At least that is the story my mum is sticking to.
But I suspect, knowing nurses as I do, shenanigans were afoot….aplenty.

One thought on “Nursing in the 1950’s

  1. I started my nursing in a large country or Base Hospital and many of your mums reflection were still evident in 1979- especially the tea trolley, pan rounds, nurses home regimented lifestyle and the hierarchy of matron , senior and junior nursing sisters, down to the lowly student nurses. There was an elevator but I don’t recall ever riding in it. Thanks for the memories


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