6 Surprising images of pre-NHS nursing

This month marks 70 years since the NHS was launched by the then Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, at Park Hospital in Manchester.

The aim was to bring good healthcare to all, under one umbrella organisation, for free. We can thank the NHS for the eradication of life threatening diseases such as polio and diphtheria, scientific breakthroughs like hand transplants and even the first IVF baby.

The invaluable work of NHS nurses has been highlighted as part of NHS70 celebrations across the country.

Here we take a look at 6 fascinating images from the Historic England Archive – part of a recently rediscovered medical collection (1938-41) – that show what life was like just before the consecration of the NHS.

1. A different kind of spectacle

A nurse administering oxygen to a patient wearing Tudor Edwards spectacles
A nurse administering oxygen to a patient wearing Tudor Edwards spectacles, in a hospital ward (unknown location). Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0140

This image shows a new oxygen-therapy treatment. Manufacturers of medical equipment began to mass-produce respiratory therapy equipment in the 1920s. By the 1930s the beneficial uses of oxygen therapy were recognised, with oxygen piping systems being constructed for hospital rooms.

Arthur Tudor Edwards described the Tudor Edwards oxygen spectacles in The Lancet medical journal in 1938. The spectacles contained no glass, and instead carried oxygen via rubber tubing to nasal prongs.

2. Decontamination

Nurses in protective clothing practising gas decontamination of a patient
Nurses in protective clothing practising gas decontamination of a patient, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/2079

The use of gas during the First World War led some to believe that the weapon would also be used on military personnel and civilians during the Second World War.

Gas could penetrate clothing, so decontamination centres containing showers were built. Protective clothing worn by staff and air raid wardens would form a barrier to prevent the liquid droplets of gas reaching their skin.

3. A bird in the hand

A patient in bed playing with a budgerigar in a cage, whilst a nurse supervises
A patient in bed playing with a budgerigar in a cage, whilst a nurse supervises, at Wingfield-Morris Orthopaedic Hospital. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0439

A patient in one of the wards of the Wingfield-Morris Orthopaedic Hospital, Oxford, in 1939. The patient’s pet budgie looks to be sitting on her hand, June 1939.

4. Experimental therapies

IMage 4 MED_01_01_0313
A patient in an Aeratone Therapeutic bath with a nurse adjusting controls at the Physical Therapy Private Clinic. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0313

Developed at the University of Edinburgh, the Aeratone Therapeutic bath is a powerful hydraulic machine that applied vibrating massage, through the use of jets of compressed air, to a patient’s immersed body. It was used for rheumatism, arthritis, neuritis, lumbago, high blood pressure and kidney trouble amongst other ailments.

5. Learning on the job

IMAGE 5 MED01-01-1663
Student nurses in a bed-making class, at the Nurses’ Training School at St James’ Hospital MED01/01/1663 Source: Historic England Archive

A former workhouse and infirmary for the poor, St James’ Hospital in Leeds was established following appropriation of the poor law institution by the city in 1934. Here, student nurses at the nurse’s training school are taking part in a bed-making class.

6. Penelope, ‘a model patient’

med01_01_1918
A student nurse using a jointed model patient to practise assisting a patient to get out of bed, in the Preliminary Training School at Central Middlesex County Hospital. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/1918

In 1941 applications “from single girls over 17 years of age, or widows” were invited for a three year training course, plus a three month preliminary trial period, for the preliminary and final State exams in general nursing. Training schools for student nurses had been established at a number of hospitals in Middlesex, including Central Middlesex County Hospital

This image shows a student nurse practicing assisting a patient to get out of bed, using a ‘model patient’, 1941. The movements of Penelope, the jointed model, were very lifelike.

Header image: Nurses on stationary cycles in gym at the new Albert Dock Hospital, Alnwick Road, London. 22 Sep 1938. Source: Historic England Archive

Photographs from our Medical Collection, together with their informative captions, are available to view at the Historic England Archive.

Further reading:

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