A Voice for Nurses: A History of the Royal College of Nursing, 1916-1990

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A Voice for Nurses: A History of the Royal College of Nursing, 1916-1990 By Susan McGann, Anne Crowther, and Rona Dougall (Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009) (358 pages, £19.99 paper, £65.00 cloth)

This book offers an excellent example of high-quality research and writing applied to often difficult task of doing an institutional history. The authors succeed in explaining how an organization like the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) could survive and adjust to vast changes without allowing their text to fall into celebratory prose.

As was so often true of the national nursing organizations forming around the world in the early 20th century, the RCN's two main aims were to define nursing as a skilled profession by improving and standardizing education for nurses and to improve working conditions for nurses in practice. Through the RCN, this history chronicles the 20th-century history of women in Britain; it shows how the organization responded and reflected growth in medical knowledge, specialization, and rising social expectations.

The leading force in founding the RCN was Sarah Swift, matron-in-chief of the British Red Cross during World War I. She worked in tandem with Arthur Stanley, MP, who served in Parliament for 18 years and was chair of the British Red Cross Society. Both were members of Britain's upper classes. Their ideas for the college were contested by many, but the best known and most vociferous opponent was Ethel Bedford Fenwick, who founded the British Nurses' Association in 1888 to work toward professionalizing nurses and state registration for nursing. Bedford Fenwick suffered several defeats at the hands of physicians. She disapproved of the Royal College idea because it did not focus on state registration for nurses; it would include doctors and men on its council; and, as the authors note, because Bedford Fenwick would have no control over it. …