Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Ethel Gordon Fenwick: Nursing Reformer and the First Registered Nurse

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom


Partially colorized portrait of woman and nurses over hospital scenes
Book cover of Ethel Gordon Fenwick: Nursing Reformer and the First Registered Nurse by Jenny Main.

With the exception of Florence Nightingale and more recently of Mary Seacole, relatively few biographies have been written about pioneering nurses. Yet there have been many others who made great contributions to their profession and deserve to be remembered. Among these is Ethel Gordon Fenwick, whose biography was recently written by Jenny Main, a nurse herself who worked for many years in Elgin in the north of Scotland before turning her interests to history. Fenwick, the youngest matron at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, pioneered the formal registration of nurses and lays claim to the title of Britain’s first registered nurse.

She was born Ethel Gordon Manson (later Fenwick) near Elgin, Scotland, in 1857, in an era of the British Empire; of intellectual, cultural, and scientific advances; and of suffragettes campaigning for women’s rights. Her father, a doctor, died within a year of her birth. She trained as a nurse in Nottingham and at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. After working at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, East London, she was appointed matron at the prestigious London teaching hospital St. Bartholomew’s at the age of twenty-four.

In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, Ethel Manson married Dr. Bedford Fenwick, the royal gynecologist. As Mrs. Bedford Fenwick, she had to give up her nursing job according to the societal norms of the era. However, in that same year, she founded the British Nurses Association, and in 1889 was involved in founding the International Council of Nurses, serving as its president for five years.

Throughout her life, Fenwick campaigned assiduously for the state registration of nurses. (Florence Nightingale was opposed to this, as she believed exams and academic skills were not prerequisites for a good nurse.) She eventually succeeded in her aim when the Nurses Registrations Act was passed in 1919 in the U.K.

During the Greek-Turkish war of 1896, Fenwick provided nursing personnel and supplies and served as superintendent of the military hospitals in Athens, for which she received the Distinguished Service Order and the Diploma of the Greek Red Cross. She also founded the British Journal of Nursing and served as its editor, using the publication as a platform to express her views about the nursing profession. Interestingly, she did not believe that trainee nurses should be paid, as this would attract the wrong kind of person to the profession. She died in 1947 at the age of ninety, a year before the National Health Service was started in the U.K.

The book is well-written, includes black-and-white illustrations, and tells the remarkable life story of this nursing pioneer and reformer whose name deserves to be better known amongst healthcare professionals.


Ethel Gordon Fenwick: Nursing Reformer and the First Registered Nurse
Jenny Main
Pen and Sword Books, 2022
ISBN 9781399099585



DR. ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).


Summer 2022  |  Sections  |  Nursing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.