Nursing in the 1950’s

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.

Photo of my mum recieving an award for kindness from the Matron during her training.

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.




Lead photo: Nightingale ward Dorset County Hospital 1957.

17 responses to “Nursing in the 1950’s”

  1. Stephanie Magill Avatar
    Stephanie Magill

    Please thank your Mum for these memories Ian.
    Not so different to hospital life in the UK in the late 60 and 70’s, Hard work but fun times – mostly. Some of those Sister’s were scary.
    Uniforms colours changed each year, our aim to qualify for the beautiful purple Staff Nurse creation.


  2. Sue Hardwick (Barcaldine Hosp, QLD) 1977 Avatar
    Sue Hardwick (Barcaldine Hosp, QLD) 1977

    Great comments and such memories for me too, thank you all for posting


  3. What a great read .. Brought back so many memories, although I trained in the late 60s at The Kitchener Memorial Hospital …… now the Geelong Hospital. The Nurses’ Home rules were much the same, although we were allowed to live “out” in third year. We had so much fun living in ….. even though the rules were strict . The large wards were great to work in , and thankfully we had proper pan flushers by then ,Some of the best days of my life though. We actually learned how to be good nurses on the job.


  4. Talk about déjà-by! My time as trainee in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide was exactly the same! Did anyone mention that patients were still allowed to smoke, specially the old men with their “rollies” or pipes! Left a mess on the white bedspreads which had to be changed before Matron’s rounds! Oh I could go on and on! All the discipline helped make me a good nurse despite it all, and looking back they were good days.🌷


  5. You would all love reading Lucilla Andrews books (romance novels) about the early days of nursing. Her own experiences are in her bio “No time for romance.”

    Betty Neels novels are also set in hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s.


  6. Well, Auckland public hospital was no different. I started in 1964, and remember those nightingale wards well. They were everywhere. Remember matrons rounds, the white counterpanes, that the men used to get dirty with the ink off the nz herald newspapers. All of the above I can recollect, even down to boiling the syringes and need,es with stylus when I first started. Later CSSD autoclaved things.
    The pan rounds, the sponge trolley, oh and gosh, I could reminisce for hours.
    Incidently, we are having our prelim 55th Anniversary weekend at a motel in Takapuna on the North Shore, Auckland next month. More than 1/2 our starting group of 40 will attend, the furtherest coming from London.sadly 2 have passed away, but we will have a ball.


  7. When I trained in the late ’70s,the most junior nurse on night shift had to go down to the hospital kitchen at 0300 and cook bacon and eggs for all the other staff on duty. This was a 100 bed rural hospital so quite a few staff.


  8. Sally Koodiaroff Avatar
    Sally Koodiaroff

    Great post. I trained in Melbourne in 1959, and I giggled my way through this story. It brought back so many memories.


  9. This still was true in the 60’s. New nurses took temps and then gave out tea morning and afternoon Wednesday was pan room scrub down day. If the floor,walls,counters did not shine heaven help you! Emptying and sterilizing sputum mugs was a daily ritual on the medical wards. The men’s ward was the worst for this chore. Still feel my stomach churn When II recall it. We did everything ! The shift didn’t end until the allotted work was done. Shifts were split to attend classes then back to the ward to finish. We rotated days/evenings then had 3 months of straight nights once a year. A far better system than rotating all 3 shifts which I found American Hospitals did up until the 2000’s.
    It was hard,but many a time I have thanked those “Dragons” for their dedication in not only patient care but training us to be NURSES and to be able to give the quality of care,mercy,humour,and love we needed for a lifetime . Once a Nurse always a Nurse! Thanks for the memories!


  10. Just an awesome read! I trained in the 70’s and some of this was still familiar even then. My Mum is 92 and trained in the late 1940’s (we both trained at the Royal Children’s in Melbourne, it was just the Children’s in Mum’s day) she is so going to love this when I show it to her to read! Thanks for posting.


  11. Having had the pleasure to work with you Mum, Ian in the early 90’s, I can testify to the caring nurse she was. As a night duty supervisor, I always looked forward to her “rounds” through ED. I’m sure the foundation of her nursing training played a significant role in how she treated both patients and other nurses.


  12. 1974 I rode a Honda360 to and from RPH as a student nurse. I was not allowed to wear jeans up to theatre (all H.. broke loose the first morning) so must change into a uniform in the living out change rooms and then proceed to theatre to change into scrubs. Same process at the end of the shift even if after 11pm.


  13. I really enjoyed reading this and all I could do was giggle. I started nursing in the early 70s. Love this article


  14. Georgina Connor Avatar
    Georgina Connor

    I think you mean the age of majority, ie when one could vote, as opposed to the age of consent, the legal age for consent to sex.


  15. I started in 1956 and everything without exception is as written both in hospitals in the UK and in Australia. We also made our own enema soap by dissolving all of the left over bars of toilet soap in a large saucepan in the pan room and on a small gas ring. When it had all melted down into a slimy soapy mess, it was stored in large glass Winchester bottles for future use. In a small hospital in Australia we also had to keep the boiler going on night duty by shovelling coke into it periodically throughout the night. If you let it go out there was no hot water in the morning for the bed baths. You can then imagine the trouble you were in the next morning when Matron arrived on duty.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Rest assured Deidre…….we were doing some of those things at RCH in the 70s!


  17. RNSH had only changed a little from this in the 70s. Moving to RCH in the early 80s was like a breath of fresh air.


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