Department of Nursing

History of Nursing in Oxford

  • The training and education of health care professionals has long been a cornerstone of life in Oxford and Swindon and in the 20th and 21st Centuries Oxford Brookes University has played its own vital role in working with local partners to provide professional healthcare education.

    Old Radcliffe hospital photograph

    Nursing training in Oxford can trace its beginnings back to 1782. Then a non-regulated training, the early beginnings of a formal nurse education, started in 1891 at the Radcliffe Infirmary on Woodstock Road. This hospital when built in 1770 was on the outskirts of Oxford.

    Early training was carried out under the watchful and revered eye of the Hospital Matron, and student nurses usually paid for a one or two year‘ certificate’. Records were scrupulously kept in leather bound ‘Tomes’ recorded in the black, hand written flow of steel nibs dipped in ink. Records contain the references and testimonials and of letters written by the hospital board.

    For example in 1840 The Governors wrote to Florence Nightingale for advice on bed curtains to replace the original wooden partitions separating the beds (1840)

    Old nursing skills lab

    In 1860 the Nightingale School of Nursing was founded at the Radcliffe and: - “The Treasurer wrote to Florence Nightingale “to nominate some competent person to advise on the general system of nursing at the Infirmary”. Miss Helen Lees one of her ablest nurses was nominated but being unable to take up the work immediately, therefore a small local committee was set up instead”.

    The records provide a fascinating history, with students working on an average 12-hour days starting at 6am, and given two 15-minute breaks. Students were also expected to attend the Hospital Chapel services on a regular basis.

    Nurse education commenced at the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1879 but it was September 1891 before names were recorded. In 1921 national training rules from the General Nursing Council were introduced. Between 1921 and 1991, 7948 nurse's names were recorded. Nurse training continued and blossomed at the Radcliffe Infirmary (RI), until 1979 when the John Radcliffe 2 site was opened and the ‘School of Nursing’ transferred to this new site. This new site also allowed the expansion of CPD for qualified nurses. Dr Liz Westcott recalls:-

    I remember I started my training at the Infirmary on a brisk sunny October day in 1978 and although intensely busy, it was a great environment to learn. When the John Radcliffe 2 was opened most of the services then moved with the Infirmary finally closing in 2007. I was a student nurse on night duty when it opened and nursed my patients for 4 nights at the RI and then 4 nights in a new ward at the JR2. What a great example of management of change”.

    In the mid 1980’s Malcolm Ross, then Chief Nursing Officer in Oxford, Pam Jones the Head of Nursing Education in Oxford entered into discussions with the then Vice Chancellor, Clive Booth, and senior staff at Oxford Polytechnic.

    The discussions concerned the development of nursing into the future, and the possible transfer of nursing education from the National Health Service (NHS) into Higher Education (HE). This decision was considered a ‘watershed’ moment as it placed Oxford ahead of most other nursing education centres in England, by opting for degree level education, when at the time many moved to diploma level during the implementation of Project 2000. Thus in 1989 the traditional RGN training was replaced by a 4-year degree in nursing and The School of Nursing came into existence at the Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University.

    The initial degree development was led by Dr Barbie Vaughn (General Adult), Dr Rob Wondrak (Mental Health), Ms Elaine Healey (Midwifery), and Ms June Hutt, Dr Sandy Oldfield (Children’s) and Mr Neil Jackson (Learning Disability. Oxford also developed a new innovative role of Lecturer Practitioner, a joint appointment between the NHS and the Polytechnic and I was one fortunate to be one of the first of the eventual over 50 staff appointed into this role. In 1989, all programmes were jointly validated by the University and the representatives of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), with the first students graduating in 1993.

    The School of Health Care was founded in 1997 with the merger of the Oxford Radcliffe School of Nursing and the Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy (OT), a pioneer in OT education established in the 1930s. Physiotherapy education was added to our undergraduate pre-registration portfolio in 1998, Paramedics in 2000, Operating Department Practice in 2002 and Osteopathy transferred into the School in 2003.

    An Adult Nursing programme was introduced at our Swindon Campus in 1999. In 2002, the Social Work programme joined us and our title changed to the School of Health and Social Care.

    In 2004 we were all fortunate to move from 12 sites across Oxford that we had been based in to the newly acquired Milham Ford girls School in Marston and at last the health and social work programmes were all on a site together.

    Marston banner image

    Health Care and Social Work were very fortunate to join with Biological and Medical Sciences and Psychology in 2011 and we all became The Faculty of Health and Life Sciences.

    This article has been written with much thanks to Ms Dorothy Walton who worked as admissions and records officer based at the JR2 during the 1970’s/ 80’s and has been composed by Dr Liz Westcott, Department Head for Nursing and Dr Rob Wondrak, previous Associate Dean for Strategy and Development, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences.