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Leaving a lasting legacy: Gwen Kirby

Gwen Kirby’s predecessors may not have attended Great Ormond Street Hospital’s (GOSH) committees and board meetings, but that did not stop this matron from finding a place at the table.

Gwen Kirby’s predecessors may not have attended Great Ormond Street Hospital’s (GOSH) committees and board meetings, but that did not stop this matron from finding a place at the table.


Gwendoline Kirby

Determined to find a way into the hospital’s senior meetings, she commandeered the tea trolley and served drinks to the hospital’s nursing committee and ‘sat down and joined them – no-one at the table asked her to go away,’ said Sally Moyes, Ms Kirby’s niece. 

‘From then on, she was included in all the meetings. She was good at getting what she wanted.’

She attended every nursing committee from 1950, the year she became a matron at GOSH, and every Hospital for Sick Children Board of Governors’ meeting from 1953, until her retirement in 1969. 

Ms Kirby’s journey into nursing started in 1933 at the age of 21 when she started at St Thomas’ preliminary training school. First in general nursing and then she specialised in children’s nursing. During the second world war, she went to GOSH for further training.

‘Professional jealousy’

In an interview Ms Kirby gave to Dulverton and District Civic Society’s Oral History Archive, she said it was considered unusual for St Thomas’ nurses to be accepted by GOSH because GOSH nurses hadn’t done their general training. She considered it to be ‘professional jealousy’.      

Two years later, she was given the opportunity to study paediatrics at the University of Toronto on the Nightingale Travelling Scholarship. On coming back to England, she was made sister at London’s St Thomas’ hospital and was there for two and a half years before becoming a matron at GOSH.

Admired and respected for her dedication to the profession and children, Ms Kirby’s career at GOSH has garnered her a place in many of her colleague’s memories. 

Lizzie Yeeles was a first-year student in 1965. When asked how her patient was, Ms Yeeles replied: ‘Oh, he's fine matron.'

‘Ms Kirby looked down her nose at me and replied, “nurse, if he were fine he wouldn't be in Great Ormond Street Hospital”.

‘She knew every patient and every nurse by name, and took a personal interest in each and every one,’ said Ms Yeeles.

Trailblazer

Ms Kirby was, arguably, a trailblazer for change. In 1963, Wendy Noble (nee Kochmann) wanted to get married and continue with her nursing training. At the time, women were not able to work as nurses and be married. Speaking to Nursing Children and Young People, Mrs Noble said: ‘I asked Ms Kirby if I could do this. She asked me what would happen if I became pregnant during the rest of my training. I have no idea what courage made me answer her with the comment, “well at least I would be married”.’


Ms Kirby with Mary, Princess Royal, hosting the Charles West School of Nursing’s
annual prize-giving ceremony in 1961. Picture: Great Ormond Street Hospital

Mrs Noble was the first married nursing student at GOSH. Just before her nurse training finished, she became pregnant and Ms Kirby changed Mrs Noble’s shifts, which meant she could work on the day ward. ‘I think of her fondly, as a good matron, aware of the needs of her nursing students and how to keep them happy,’ she said.

Lasting memory

This trait saw Ms Kirby fly to Uganda when Kampala Hospital requested GOSH send doctors and nurses to assist them. She inspected the accommodation and working conditions before the nurses flew out.

After retirement, she moved to Exmoor and died in 2007.

Ms Kirby’s memory still lives on at GOSH. The hospital has two awards named after her: the Gwen Kirby award for excellence in the nursing care of children and the Gwen Kirby award for a student nurse.

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