International Nurses’ Day 2014

This is a joint blog post from our three graduate trainees: Kim Beasley and Callum Morrison at the University of Glasgow Archive Services and Michelle Craig of the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives.

This year’s International Nurses Day theme is on how nurses are a force for change and a vital resource for health. To mark this, we have written a blog on nurses in two extraordinary situations from the early twentieth century, The First World War and the 1900 plague outbreak in Glasgow. The bravery of the nurses in both of these situations highlights the vital role they play in public health, even under extreme circumstances.


Queen Margaret College War Service


Whilst Queen Margaret College is known for its pioneering female medical graduates who went on to serve as medics in Serbia and France during the First World War, there were also female students who volunteered as nurses to do their bit in the war effort. In 1915, following an announcement that volunteers could help at Military Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) hospitals, many students volunteered for part time hospital service and took courses in Nursing and First Aid. The enthusiasm for these courses is demonstrated in the fact that every student passed their exams in these subjects.



The students were clearly keen to volunteer, however many got rejected for being too young, mirroring their male counterparts who signed up so eagerly often despite of their age. However women were not allowed to nurse unless they were a certain age, according to a particular hospital’s rules; the Western Infirmary rejected women under the age of 22, whereas the Royal Infirmary took people from the age of 21. An unknown author of a letter to the University of Glasgow’s principal Donald MacAlister noted the conflicting situation which allowed these women’s brothers to be admitted to war service aged only 18. The arbitrary age limitations meant that initially Queen Margaret College could only contribute a small number of people to the war time hospital service. Therefore as the war continued different work, apparently more suited to the younger woman, was devised.

The records of Queen Margaret College’s War Service demonstrate the willingness of women to contribute to the First World War and the growing frustration at a society which stymied their role even in an emergency.

1900 Glasgow Plague

In 1900, an outbreak of bubonic plague with origins in Hong Kong worked along the shipping trade routes until it arrived in Glasgow where a dock worker’s wife and his granddaughter contracted the disease and died. There had not been any reported cases in the UK since the reign of Charles II and the Great Fire of London. At a wake held for the victims, the disease spread, with the result that wakes were temporarily banned within the city.

The plague’s arrival in Glasgow coincided with the appointment of Dr John Brownlee as Physician Superintendent of Belvidere Infectious Diseases Hospital. Of the 36 people who caught the plague between 1900 and 1901, 28 received treatment at Belvidere. Unlike similar outbreaks in other areas of the world, Brownlee was able to identify the disease early on. The Medical Officer for Health in Glasgow, Dr A.K. Chalmers, was also acutely aware of the discovery by Japanese and French researchers regarding the spread of the infection from fleas carried by rats. With this knowledge, Brownlee was able to control the outbreak effectively and swiftly within the hospital. Brownlee also adopted a set of rules for his nurses so as to reduce the spread of the infection both to staff and also to other vulnerable patients within the hospital.

It was arranged that the plague nurses would work in relative isolation and that they would have a separate dining room. Both the nursing staff and the attending staff wore long overalls which buttoned up to the neck and at the wrists and ankles. They left these in the ward when they returned to their rooms. A temporary boiler was installed to boil items before sending them to laundry and certain items that had been in direct contact with patients were burned.

Of the 36 people infected in the whole city, 16 died. Of the hospital staff, remarkably only one cleaner suffered mild symptoms of the disease. It is a testament to the rigorous efforts of Brownlee and his nurses that such a tally was not larger. The plague nurses each received medals for their bravery. This incident is relatively well documented in histories of Belvidere but is merely one of a great range of outbreaks in the history of infectious disease medicine in Glasgow. Belvidere nurses also nursed patients with more endemic infectious diseases such as typhus. In commemoration of the bravery of its nurses, Belvidere Hospital erected a site and commemoration stone in Sandymount Cemetery, Shettleston that commemorates some of the nurses killed by these diseases during their service.


These just two of the stories held in the archives that show how vital nurses have been to the improvement of public health. The blog uses two fantastic resources for the history of medicine, the Queen Margaret College collection at the University of Glasgow Archive Services and the records of Belvidere Hospital from the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives and both archives hold many more collections which reveal the working lives of nurses in Glasgow and beyond. There is also a Flickr set with more images from the collections.

Categories: Archive Services

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3 replies

  1. The nurses must have been very brave. It’s interesting to learn about the clothes they wore whilst treating plague victims and the procedures that they followed to prevent infection. Do you know if Glasgow Uni holds any materials written by the nurses about their experiences?


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