Braving Disease and Death: The Contribution of Nursing to the Feminisation of the British Empire, 1896-1948

Date: 22 October 2012
Time: 16:30 - 17:30
Venue: MG07, Main Building, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road

seminar posterBraving Disease and Death: The Contribution of Nursing to the Feminisation of the British Empire, 1896-1948 by Professor Anne Marie Rafferty (Dean & Chair of Nursing Policy, King's College London)

Between 1896 and 1966, the Colonial Nursing Association sent 8,450 nurses to the British Empire and to areas overseas with substantial British populations. The British Empire often seems an emphatically masculine space given over to men ‘dressed to kill’- literally portrayed in hunting garb and sporting elaborate regimental regalia. But in terms of sheer numbers, nurses were amongst the most populous groups of women to venture out to the corners of the colonies and certainly their position as working women raises important and underexplored questions about their contribution to colonial rule. The qualifications demanded of nurses defined them both in contradiction to the rugged masculinity associated with men in empire and the traditional role of delicate, physical passivity associated with femininity. Yet the sheer physical demands of working in inclement climates meant that the nurse had to be physically robust and mentally resilient to thrive in the sometimes extreme conditions of the tropical colonies in particular. They needed to be triple trained in general nursing, midwifery, fever nursing and sometimes in public health nursing marked nurses who went to work in the colonies as amongst the best qualified of the profession. The need to be resourceful, independent and a capacity to improvise and adapt did not always mesh well with the expectation that such nurses would yield readily to the demands of colonial life.

The findings presented here form part of a collaborative project within the Centre for Humanities and Healthcare at King’s College, London with Drs Rosemary Wall and Jessica Howell and Anna Snaith. As we shall demonstrate the heroic qualities valorised by the Association in its recruitment rhetoric sometimes clashed with the reality of colonial life in the field. We argue that the figure of the nurse, as a working woman occupied an ambiguous and ambivalent position of ‘in-betweeness’ within the colonial hierarchy but that it was this very ‘in-betweeness’ which enabled the colonial nurse to contribute to the feminisation of empire in multiple ways. Specifically, we argue that nursing contributed to the feminisation of empire; first as symbolic of the benign face of colonial rule; second as romantic figures furnishing would-be wives for colonial officials and finally as conduits into local populations by winning the confidence of women and children. We conclude that the figure of the nurse provides a unique and neglected indexical resource through which to analyse the role that gender plays in global history more generally.

All are welcome.

The event is co-organised by the Department of History at the University of Hong Kong. For further enquiries, please contact us.