I started nursing sixty years ago this week at Royal Perth Hospital. What a milestone! It was winter, 1955. Winters were wetter then, and seemed colder.

Royal Perth hospital where I began nursing sixty years ago.
Royal Perth hospital where I began nursing sixty years ago. The eight-storey blocks were brand new.

My nursing career was an accident. I really wanted to be a writer, a journalist or  a teacher of literature. My parents thought these choices odd.

‘They’re not proper jobs,’ my mother said. ‘How about nursing? Or would you like to work in an office? Those are good jobs for a girl.’

In those days nurses were ‘trained’ not educated. I’m sad I don’t have a single photo of that time.

Nursing sixty years ago

For me the apprentice system of nursing sixty years ago meant

  • Leaving the comfort of  my parents’ home. Sharing a room with two or three strangers in the nurses’ quarters. Sometimes the beds were on a veranda. Living in was compulsory for the whole three years of training.
  • Being indentured as an apprentice. The papers were between my father and the hospital. At seventeen years, I was a minor and incidental to the agreement. I was still a minor when I finished my training and became a registered nurse. How did that work, I wonder?
  • A forty-eight hour week worked over six days on a roster. We noted our requests for time off in a book. Often not granted.
  • No more team sports. You could never guarantee you’d be off for a game or for training.
  • Two-month-long spells of night duty – guaranteed to stuff up anyone’s social life!
  • Lectures and exams after work or in the middle of sleep-time if you were on night duty.
  • Freezing in a  short-sleeved cotton dress (complete with apron and belt). Our necks chaffed under stiffly starched detachable collars.
  • Being locked into the quarters at 10.30 every night. Special passes were ‘awarded’ occasionally to stay out until midnight.
  • Miserly pay plus board (see above) and hospital food.
An older building at RPH. Sixty years ago, this was a dilapidated nurses' home where we slept on the verandas.
An older building at RPH. Sixty years ago, this was a dilapidated nurses’ home where we slept on the verandas.

In six weeks in preliminary training school (PTS) we learned to make beds with mitred corners, bed-bath a dummy and inject oranges. PTS was warm and comfortable. It was remote from the reality of the wards we would soon face.

My surname was towards the bottom of the alphabet. The roster was alphabetically arranged. The position of ‘first junior’ (the lowest of the lowly) fell to the person at the bottom of the roster.

Nursing sixty years ago was task-oriented rather than patient-oriented.

For four months my jobs included cleaning the pan-room every time I went on duty.On morning shift it was my lot to scrub every bed-pan and urine bottle. (Most patients were confined to bed for most of their hospital stay.) Then I boiled the utensils in a steriliser and put them on racks. to drain and dry. The work was hot and filthy. There were no protective gloves available.

Afternoon shifts weren’t a lot better. My job as first junior was to test the wee of every patient. The wee was always ready standing in in rows in glasses of a certain shape, To this day, I can’t drink from a glass that shape!

After pan-room duties were finished, the pan room was inspected by a staff-nurse. For the rest of the shift I did the bidding of a more senior colleague.

My life passed in a blur. I had no idea what nursing meant. My feet hurt. My heart ached every day at the sight of half-a-million bedpans or mile-long rows of wee that waited for me.

Life changed after my first lot of night-duty. The nurse with whom I worked had almost completed her training. She was knowledgeable, kind and gentle with my ignorance.

She taught me that patients were whole people. That nursing was about helping these real people to get well or (occasionally) to die peacefully. She showed me how to make people comfortable in their beds. To comfort them. To care about them. That there was more to being a nurse than cleaning a pan room. I began to enjoy my work.

I often wonder where that nurse is now. I hope life has been very, very kind to her

Nursing sixty years ago was very different from today. Nurses are educated. They are respected professionals. Viva la difference!

16 replies on “Nursing sixty years ago”

  1. Reminds me of books I’ve read about nursing in those days. I did my psych training in the 70s, so it was a very different story. I did two years of general training after a stint in the community, but left to get married again. The first day on duty in Mona Vale Hospital, I was assigned to the medical ward and put in charge, as I had second year status because of my psych degree. You can imagine what sort of shift I had!

    1. What a dangerous lot we nurses must have been in the ‘olden days’! I’m sure you did an admirable job, Christina, and you sound far more qualified than many of us at RPH with your degree and two years training There were very few registered nurses still at work when I was an apprentice. Nurses, like teachers, had to resign from their positions when they married. Wards were staffed all night by a second or third year nurse with a first year nurse to help. We were responsible for up to thirty five patients of all degrees of illness. The night supervisor did her rounds and was there for back-up if we needed help. But I honestly don’t remember asking for anything when I was the senior on night duty. Days were a bit different, because there was always one registered nurse.

      1. Those were the days!! I was almost three years behind you, a long way then.
        One of my enduring memories was of first year night duty, I was ?fortunate to be in the Eye ward, the work was minimal but we used to “help” in the adjoining Surgical ward reigned over by the arch tyrant who did not take well to others invading HER ward. However I used to go in answering a bell of a “sweet” very old, very sick woman (the bell rang in our ward you see) who was dying, I learnt much from making her comfortable and talking to her in the wee small hours.
        My experiences possibly matched yours and some of what I learnt stays with me now.
        Thanks for sharing and evoking memories both good and bad.

        1. I had almost finished my training by the time you started, Rosemary. I might even have been a staff nurse while you were training at RPH. But I know the hospital didn’t change much in those three years, and your experiences would have been close to mine. I’m so very grateful that I met ‘my’ lovely night-duty nurse, even if it did mean making supper every night for her and her boyfriend (a doctor also on night duty). Cooking scrambled eggs with eggs stolen from ward pantries in other the parts of the hospital for them was a small price to pay for all she taught me.

    2. Hello. I stumbled upon your blog by accident just researching for an article and I am glad I did. I am a nursing assistant and have been for 19 years. I love hearing the stories of the old school nurses and really enjoyed your pics and your story. I do believe nursing was so much better back in the day than it is now. People go into nursing only for the money and they don’t seem to care about the patients as they should.

      1. I’m pleased that you stumbled across my blog, and then took time to comment. Thank you. I’m sure that university educated nurses bring a different dimension to their nursing practice than we old nurses did. Many of them, if not most, are dedicated to the profession. But nursing was a different occupation altogether when I was young. Thank you again for your comment.

    1. So interesting to hear of these different yet similar experiences. How much was expected of us, how little real support we had, how little we were paid, and yet how much we gave and how much we learned.

  2. I can’t quite agree with you Maureen on all your points. In 1959 I started my nursing at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney – unlike here in Perth, it was a four year stint before graduating. Yes, in the first year there were lots of bedpans to clean and beds to make – but we also learned how to ‘nurse’ people and take care of them. Another thing I have treasured ever since – and especially in my 21 years as Pastoral Associate in Girrawheen Parish – is the respect we learned to have for a person who had died on the ward. We nurses were expected to ‘lay’ the person out without any chit chat or frivolity. I remember once, whilst talking to a nurse from a public hospital, how they chatted away whilst doing this duty. I was aghast. I always was thankful that I did do my training at St. Vincent’s.

    I don’t think nurses today really do know how to ‘care’ for patients in the same way we learned. Yes, they may be more educated, but education does not necessarily foster caring.

    In 2006, I had my last spinal fusion at a private hospital here in Perth – I will not name it. I went to the theatre at 12 noon on Thursday. On Saturday morning, when one of my daughters came to visit me, I asked her to assist me in getting out of the robes in which I was clothed to go to theatre two days previously – she also helped me in washing my body – cleaning me – re-dressing me.

    Nurses today also do not worry about helping patients with things like bed sores – that is my experience. In 2008, I was in another private hospital for a knee replacement. the same ‘non-nursing’ was very apparent and real.

    Again, yes nurses today may be more highly educated – but I do not believe that automatically leads to better nursing – caring of patients, treating them as human beings, not machines.

    Unfortunately, I need to be hospitalised again later this year. Besides all the other things involved, I don’t look forward to ‘non-nursing’ care.

    1. What horrible experiences, Elizabeth. I absolutely agree with you about non-nursing in some hospitals at least over the last thirty years. One of my sons had major heart surgery almost twenty years ago. He was very ill before the operation which was done to save his life. One day I asked where his track suits were, so I could take them home to wash. He said, ‘Mum. I’m too sick to go to the shower. It’s been a few days.’ His sister quickly got a wheelchair and took him into the bathroom and showered him. She continued to do this for a week.

      My own experience of hospitalisation has been minimal. But I was looked after and cared for beautifully as a patient in St. John’s Subiaco. They take their mission statement very seriously indeed, and care for people. I’m envious of your training at St. Vincent’s. It sounds wonderfully caring of both patients and nurses. That wasn’t my experience of the institutional RPH, although there were some wonderful, caring nurses who made all the difference to my training.

      I hope your next hospitalisation goes well and you find some caring nurses.

      1. I too hope your hospitalisation goes well Elizabeth. Rosemary K

    1. What a good idea, Michele. Thank you. I’m glad you found the post interesting. The good old days were not always that good, I’ve discovered.

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