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Pride in nursing’s diverse history

An RCN exhibition in Edinburgh is revealing the hidden history of LGBT nurses, black, Asian and minority ethnic nurses, and nurses with disabilities. Among the striking exhibits are the love letters of two first world war nurses who raised a family together

An RCN exhibition in Edinburgh is revealing the hidden history of LGBT nurses, black, Asian and minority ethnic nurses, and nurses with disabilities. Among the striking exhibits are the love letters of two first world war nurses who raised a family together


The exhibition includes a photo of first world war nurses Lady Hermione Blackwood
and Cathlin du Sautoy with their children Yvette and Victor. Picture: Mike Wilkinson

Around a century ago as the first world war still raged, RCN member Cathlin Cecily du Sautoy and Lady Hermione Blackwood were working as nurses in devastated areas of France, principally Reims.

The two women, who had met at Guy’s Hospital in London, went on to build a life together, adopting two children (giving them the surname France) and eventually settling in London’s leafy Hampstead.


Picture: Mike Wilkinson

Letters between the two women – referring lovingly to their children and to each other – form part of an exhibition at RCN Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh.

The exhibition, called Hidden in Plain Sight, aims to celebrate diversity in nursing, highlighting the roles played by LGBT nurses, Black, Asian and minority ethnic nurses, and nurses with disabilities.

From Boney M to gay pride badges

Exhibits range from a vinyl disc of Boney M’s song Brown Girl in the Ring, donated by nursing pioneer and RCN fellow Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, to badges worn by RCN members in Pride marches. There is also a section dedicated to the contribution made by deaf mental health nurses, and the challenges they had to overcome to bring their skills to health services.

Many of the exhibits are drawn from the RCN’s own archive, which is based in Edinburgh, and was curated with input from the History of Nursing Society.

For one member of the society, Alison O’Donnell, a retired lecturer in nursing and volunteer at the RCN archives in Edinburgh, the title of the exhibition is somewhat ironic. ‘The team bringing the exhibits together found there was a real paucity of resources to draw on,’ she says.

‘The theme of diversity was not just “hidden in plain sight” – in some cases it wasn’t there at all.’

One of the genuinely shocking things shown by the exhibition is how recent some developments have been. For example, 30 years ago deaf people were not allowed to work in mental health services in the NHS, and this only changed after a decade of campaigning by the British Society for Mental Health and Deafness, boosted by the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

Insights into other worlds

Dianne Yarwood, a retired nurse educationalist and a committee member of the History of Nursing Society, was closely involved in this section of the exhibition, and visited the deaf mental health unit at Springfield University Hospital in south London.

Ms Yarwood says: ‘It was clear at the start of the curation process that it was going to be a real challenge to find the stories of those “hidden in plain sight”. The group I had the least awareness of were deaf nurses, specifically those mental health nurses working at Springfield hospital in a unit exclusively for deaf patients/clients.


Professor Dame Donna Kinnair: Nursing should reflect the diversity of society. 
Picture: Mike Wilkinson

‘Conducting oral histories with deaf people gave me an insight into the world of British Sign Language translators and of the advances in technology to assist hearing aid wearers.’

Conversations with nurses and visits to the units shed some light on the challenges of working and practising in a hearing world – and on the importance to patients of having nurses who understand the particular challenges they face.

Another surprisingly recent exhibit is a cutting from Nursing Standard featuring a letter from a woman wondering if she is ‘the only lesbian nurse’. The nurse, identified only as Beebo, says she can hear ‘closet doors slamming’ around her, and asks whether there is such a thing as equal opportunities in applying for nursing posts. Incredibly, this was in 1995, just 23 years ago.

Contribution not recognised

RCN Scotland knowledge and research manager Sian Kiely says the exhibition is a timely reminder of the importance of encouraging a diverse workforce and an inclusive nursing profession. ‘It’s fantastic to have this opportunity to share the diverse lives and experiences of nurses who have too often struggled to have their contribution recognised,’ she says.

‘Some of the personal stories and items featured in the exhibition are very touching and bring this part of nursing history to life, reminding us that we must continue to champion equality and inclusion.’

Theresa Fyffe, director of RCN Scotland, accepts that there is still some way to go before the fight for true inclusion and equality is won. But she says: ‘I’m proud that we have this exhibition here in Scotland and that it gives us the opportunity to talk about what we still need to do. Staff and members are ready for us to talk about this openly, and that’s what we are doing.’


Carole Anderson: ‘Even today,
LGBT healthcare staff may feel
they cannot come out at work​​​​​​.’
Picture: Mike Wilkinson

Professor Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN director of nursing, policy and practice, who attended the launch of the exhibition, says nursing should reflect the diversity of society to improve outcomes for patients. ‘We have to recognise the impact that differences in culture can have on health,’ she says.

Workplace culture

This is a lesson that some healthcare providers have taken on more wholeheartedly than others. The launch event also heard from Carole Anderson, a former physiotherapist who is head of strategy and performance at the NHS Golden Jubilee Foundation, one of Scotland’s health boards. She is also chair of the Scottish Workplace LGBT Networking Charity (SWAN) and is a Stonewall Scotland role model.

She described the approach of her health board in creating a diverse and inclusive workforce – an approach that has earned it recognition in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers list.

Even today, she says, LGBT healthcare staff may feel they cannot come out at work because they fear it will have a harmful impact on their lives and careers. ‘Many things can affect how inclusive the culture of a workplace is towards LGBT staff.’

Impact of jokes and banter

She adds: ‘It can be things that you might think minor, such as banter or inappropriate jokes or comments, but these are not minor and have a real impact on people. It can mean that people don’t feel confident about being out at work and therefore are less productive as a result.

‘Our policies and values at Golden Jubilee emphasise respect for employees but also for patients – this includes inclusive and respectful communication and avoiding inappropriate disclosure of confidential patient information on sexual orientation or gender identity.’

Looking at the exhibition, Ms Anderson says she is particularly struck by the story of du Sautoy and Lady Hermione.

Dr O’Donnell was also touched by this century-old story. ‘As a couple with two children they formed a close family unit. They were pioneers and ahead of their time.’ 

Promoting diversity, equality and inclusion

The exhibition Hidden in Plain Sight: Celebrating Nursing Diversity is at RCN Scotland headquarters at 42 South Oswald Road, Edinburgh EH9 2HH. It is open to the public on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, 10am-4pm, until 12 October 2018.

In addition, RCN Scotland is organising a number of events to promote diversity, equality and inclusion. These include:

Leading Across the Difference: Raising the Profile of Black and Minority Ethnic Nurses, on 30 May, 4-6pm at RCN Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh. This event includes information about an NHS Lothian programme to mentor nurses and midwives from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Nursing: A Career for Men. Myths, Challenges and Solutions, on 28 August, 4-6pm, Room CEE2, Centre for Executive Education, Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow G4 0BA. Men make up less than 10% of applicants to nursing courses. This event looks at why, and discusses potential ways to encourage more men to choose a career in nursing.


Jennifer Trueland is a freelance health journalist

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