Monday, June 23, 2014

Sister Janet, nurse and heroine

When it comes to the history of nurses, everybody knows about Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War.

But how about Janet Wells (later King)? Before she was twenty years old, she had not only served as a Superintendent of a hospital at Newcastle, she had experienced two dangerous nursing adventures in the Balkans and in South Africa where she was the only British nurse to serve at the front during the Anglo-Zulu War, its most famous battle of Rorke’sDrift immortalised in film and in legend.

During her lifetime, Janet was as revered as Florence and the second nurse to receive the Royal Red Cross, yet her star faded until recently when her scrapbook was rediscovered by her great-granddaughter who brought it to the attention of an Anglo-Zulu historical group. With the publication in 2006 of this book about her by Brian Best and Katie Stossel finally her story had the potential to reach a wider audience.

Not many eighteen year olds – then or since – and raised in a genteel world of music and middle-class comfort would have the maturity to handle death, atrocities, disease and starvation on two contrasting battlefronts with such determination and confidence. In this biography, Janet comes across as a warm, calm and self-reliant young woman who would have been a credit in any field of endeavour.

The book also describes in detail the little-remembered Russo-Turkish War with its ghastly casualty rate and callous treatment of men, and also the fact that Sister Janet did not take sides and that she treated all her patients equally, including Zulus and even the imprisoned Chief Cetshwayo himself. There is also enlightening discussion on the early days of the Red Cross and how politics, personalities and competition affected the various nursing bodies.

Although she did not actively nurse after she was married, like her more famous contemporary Florence, Janet always campaigned for military authorities to give more attention to medical supplies and support although it would take many more years before these matters were seriously attended to.

The book’s illustrations include scenes from her life, including poignant na├»ve sketches by a soldier admirer of hers, flowers and mementos that she collected from the battlefields, and beads given to her by Cetshwayo.

Certainly an inspiring woman who deserves to be much better known.

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