Features

Celebrating the nursing degree pioneers

On the 60th anniversary of the nursing department at the University of Edinburgh, Jennifer Trueland talks to students past and present and looks at the pioneering work of its founder Elsie Stephenson. 
2nd degree group with Lis Nicolson

On the 60th anniversary of the nursing department at the University of Edinburgh, Jennifer Trueland talks to students past and present and looks at the pioneering work of its founder Elsie Stephenson.

In 1961, teenager Sandra McSwein knew what she wanted to do with her life. Coming from a medical family, she was sure that nursing was for her.

She was also attracted to the idea of going to university, but thought it would be impossible to do both. Then her surgeon father pointed out a newspaper article that described the perfect combination the nursing studies unit at the University of Edinburgh.

The UKs longest standing university nursing department, the University of Edinburgh unit celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Led by Elsie Stephenson later described as Britains nursing messiah of the 20th century the unit had been in existence for around four

...

On the 60th anniversary of the nursing department at the University of Edinburgh, Jennifer Trueland talks to students past and present and looks at the pioneering work of its founder Elsie Stephenson.

In 1961, teenager Sandra McSwein knew what she wanted to do with her life. Coming from a medical family, she was sure that nursing was for her.

She was also attracted to the idea of going to university, but thought it would be impossible to do both. Then her surgeon father pointed out a newspaper article that described the perfect combination – the nursing studies unit at the University of Edinburgh.

The UK’s longest standing university nursing department, the University of Edinburgh unit celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Led by Elsie Stephenson – later described as Britain’s ‘nursing messiah of the 20th century’ – the unit had been in existence for around four years by the time young Sandra was considering her options.

Elsie Stephenson
Elsie Stephenson, described as 'Britain's nursing messiah of the 20th century'

Part of the second cohort of undergraduates, Ms McSwein remembers her time in Edinburgh with great fondness. ‘I didn’t think about it as being a trailblazer,’ she smiles.

‘A lot of my friends were going to be teachers or secretaries, and I wanted to be a nurse. But I also wanted to go to university. I read about this opportunity in the Glasgow Herald and it seemed perfect.’

Degree progression

A lot has changed since those early days. Nursing is now an all-graduate profession, and Edinburgh is far from the only higher education institution offering a four-year honours degree in nursing, as well as postgraduate qualifications including PhD and masters.

But some believe the founding of the unit in Edinburgh, and those early nursing degree pioneers, helped create a shift in nursing that has brought us to where we are today.

2013 Graduating Class
2013 graduating class outside the graduation hall, McEwan Hall

Sheila Rodgers is head of nursing studies at the university, a role she combines with an honorary research consultant post in critical care at NHS Lothian.

The course came about, she says, as a result of a collaboration with RCN Scotland. It started as a nurse teaching unit, training people to be nurse tutors, but then it was awarded a $90,000 grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.

History of nursing courses

The first integrated, five-year degree course for nurses was set up in 1960. Nursing studies moved into the Faculty of Social Sciences with its own head of department, achieving parity with other academic subjects in 1965.

In her 1996 book on the unit’s history, Leap in the Dark, Rosemary Weir points out that Elsie Stephenson ‘brought research mindedness’ to bear on the new unit; in 1971, the first chair of nursing studies in Europe was created.

‘From the very beginning, the course gave students the opportunity to be part of the wider university, and that is still the case now,’ says Dr Rodgers.

‘I understand that reaction was mixed. While many doctors saw the value of having strong nursing, with others it was less so if it meant that nurses would be in the medical faculty.’

The unit’s alumni includes leading figures in nursing and nurse research, including Anne Marie Rafferty CBE, professor of nursing and dean of the Florence Nightingale school of nursing and midwifery, King’s College London, as well as a number of chief nurses and academics.

Opportunities explored

Daniel Kelly, RCN chair of nursing research at the University of Cardiff and president of the European Oncology Nursing Society, attended the unit from 1979 to 1984 and is now a visiting professor.

‘It was fantastic to be exposed to other subjects, and it was good to be part of an academic culture,’ he says.

‘There’s a place for academic excellence in nursing, and it has always been promoted at Edinburgh.’

Zoe Horseman recently graduated from the course and is now working as a bank nurse before going back to do a masters’ degree in public health in September.

From Ripon in North Yorkshire, she chose to study in Edinburgh because she loved the city and because of the university’s good reputation. ‘I liked the idea of the four-year course. I’ve really enjoyed it, and have found Edinburgh a friendly, safe city,’ she says.

For her ‘outside’ subject she studied social work – something she hopes will be of good use in the future when she plans to work in the community. She also relished the opportunity to work abroad, spending five weeks in Peru. ‘I was working in a hospital for four weeks, and the other week was spent on an intensive Spanish course – very intensive,’ she laughs.

The idea of spending time abroad also appeals to Maria Sparado, who has just finished her first year. ‘I’m not sure what I want to do in the future yet, but I’d like to do my elective in the United States because I want to learn more about their health service,’ she says.

Coming from a family with many aunts and cousins already in nursing, she too was attracted by the course because of its reputation and its content. ‘I felt that a four-year course would offer more opportunities. There’s more time to learn, and I like that the course is small – we get to know everybody and it’s like a family,’ she says.

Back in the early days, Ms McSwein relished the chance to study psychology, zoology and fine art as part of the three-year MA course, while attending nursing lectures after 5pm and working on the wards during term time and university holidays.

After graduating, she then did on-the-ward training for a further two years before becoming an RGN. ‘When we were first on the wards, some people thought we had gone to university because we weren’t prepared to wash out bedpans, she says.

‘There was one ward sister who was quite hard on me in front of the patients. But it was a good way to train to be a nurse – it broadened my experience, and we had excellent support from the people the nursing studies unit. We used to keep a day book where we would write everything down and could discuss it with them.’

2nd degree group with Lis Nicolson
Elisabeth Nicolson with the second degree group at their graduation

Elisabeth Nicolson trained in the same year as Ms McSwein and the two remain friends to this day. She worked in Paris for four years some time after graduating – a job made much easier by the fact she studied French as an outside subject.

She agrees that the ‘university’ nurses were often seen as something ‘apart’ by other nurses on the wards, but has nothing but praise for Elsie Stephenson, who died young at age 51.

‘I actually nursed her when she became ill,’ says Ms Nicolson. ‘I’ve heard her described as a visionary. But to those of us on the course, she was someone we really loved.’


Celebrating 60 years of nursing

The University of Edinburgh has been celebrating its 60th anniversary with a series of events throughout the year. In autumn, the Elsie Stephenson memorial lecture will be held on 3 November, followed by an alumni conference on 4 November.

Jennifer Trueland is a freelance journalist

Want to read more?

Subscribe for unlimited access

Enjoy 1 month's access for £1 and get:

  • Full access to nursing standard.com and the Nursing Standard app
  • Monthly digital edition
  • RCNi Portfolio and interactive CPD quizzes
  • RCNi Learning with 200+ evidence-based modules
  • 10 articles a month from any other RCNi journal

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this?

Jobs