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Freed to Care Proud to Nurse.

Freed to Care Proud to Nurse By Mary Ellen O'Connor, published by Steele Roberts and NZNO, 2010. 310pp. NZNO members, $45; non-members $60 (plus $5 for p&p).

Nursing history has a tenuous place in today's nursing curricula. However, this was not always so, as evidenced by this quote from class notes from the Preliminary Training School at Christchurch Hospital in the early 1950s: "In studying the past she [the nurse] will find that the struggle was centuries long, always hard, often bitter in bringing the profession along the path of progress; and also the fact that history tends to repeat itself, so that reading of the way that problems were met and mastered in the past will teach many lessons that are readily applicable to the conditions today." (1)

NZNO's centennial project committee, valuing NZNO's long and proud history, commissioned Mary Ellen O'Connor to write a book telling the story of the organisation's industrial and professional growth. O'Connor has been a tertiary teacher who, of late, has specialised in historical writing and oral history.

Welt-researched book

In this well-researched book, she has drawn on the rich historical resource of the entire 101 years of the publication Kai Taiki available in the NZNO Library, the Nursing Education and Research Foundation oral histories, as well as members and staff, past and present. She has produced a very readable "coffee table" book, with a wealth of photos, that traces the organisation's roots from the New Zealand Trained Nurses' Association (NZTNA) in 1909, through its several structures and name changes to the re-amalgamation of the New Zealand Nurses' Association and the New Zealand Nurses' Union in 1993 to form the NZNO we know today.

While NZNO, in all its incarnations, has always been a professional body and voice of New Zealand nurses, it has not always been their industrial representative. The tension between the professional and the industrial is a theme that runs throughout the book. I was fascinated to read of the developments, starting with Hester McLean's (the first president of the NZRNA and founder of Koi Tiaki) firm stance against unionism in the face of poor pay, Long working hours and disputes in hospitals. McLean, a highly professional and dedicated nurse herself, considered unionism vulgar and beneath the dignity of the nursing profession. Still later, in 1947, the association strongly resisted becoming unionised, but was successful in having four members appointed to the Hospital Board Nurses' Salaries Advisory Committee. Thus, the government recognised the association as the bargaining agent for nurses without it becoming it a union.

By the early 1970s, the profile of industrial issues was raised and the New Zealand Nurses' Industrial Union of Workers was formed. Freed to Care Proud to Nurse chronicles Later struggles, such as the development of the first national NZNO/District Health Boards Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) in 2004 and the Later fight for "Fair Pay':

Inextricably interwoven with this account of NZNO's 100-year history are both the history of New Zealand and the history of nursing in this country. Written in chronological order, O'Connor has organised the chapters under several headings to capture the major events of the time in relation to the government, the association/organisation, education, clinical, employment and international perspectives. I was most interested to read of the struggle nursing in New Zealand had to move education into tertiary institutions and how early this began. Many nurses will be unaware that in 1925 a Diploma of Nursing at Otago University was proposed, strongly supported by the NZTNA. Unfortunately this never went ahead, due to lack of financial support.

Nurses' wartime contributions

Nurses' contribution to both World Wars, both at home and abroad, is included and is a testament to nurses' dedication, bravery and the high regard in which they were held. From World War 1 comes the story of Ethel Lewis and the heroic but unsuccessful evacuation of patients from a field hospital over the mountain passes of Albania. From World War 2 comes the story of the successful evacuation of nurses from a hospital in Greece as they hid from enemy planes and bombs.

Another feature of the book are the profiles of our nursing leaders, past and present. Some stalwarts of the association/organisation, some not; some will be familiar names to nurses today, some not. Profiles include the Likes of Mary Lambie, Long-time Director, Division of Nursing, Department of Health, in the 1930s and 1940s; Akenehi Hei, the first nurse and midwife to register under her Maori name and who worked in Maori communities in the 1900s before dying of typhoid; more Latterly Bee Salmon, nursing scholar, mentor, leader, writer and speaker. It is invaluable to have these stories of our nursing Leaders recorded and kept alive in such an accessible way. Other profiles give an insight into major health issues of the time, such as Winifred Muff's account of nursing in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

As O'Connor points out, in the early days "neither the profession nor the association was designed to attract nor nurture Maori" (p13). This was to change in the 1990s with the incorporation of Te Runanga o Aotearoa, originally formed as part of the Nurses' Union, within NZNO. It is pleasing to see an increased presence of Maori in the pages of the book following this time.

The centennial project committee is to be commended for commissioning this book and O'Connor on her research and writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Freed to Care Proud to Nurse deserves a place, not only on your coffee table, but also in every school of nursing, medical and hospital library.

Victoria Cullens, RN, RSCN, MA (AppldNsg), is a clinical nurse specialist in the paediatric high dependency unit at Christchurch Hospital. Her interest in nursing history was kindled while studying for her MA at Victoria University, Wellington. Her thesis explored recruitment and retention of nurses in the decade after World War 2.


(1) Christchurch Hospital Preliminary Training School class notes. (1951) History of Nursing, Lecture 1. (From the private collection of Gwendolyn Oliver.)
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Author:Cullens, Victoria
Publication:Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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