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Sharing stories: Elsie Stephenson

The best and most inspirational stories from the University are, more often than not, hidden inside our schools and departments. We would like to unearth these achievements and share them far and wide.

Elsie Stephenson

Once again, Nursing Studies at the University has been ranked top among all higher education institutions in the UK.

Its graduates are highly regarded both nationally and internationally and it has produced some notable leaders in the field including Helen Mackinnon, until recently the Executive Nurse Director at NHS Education for Scotland.

You don’t however, have to be a graduate of the department to appreciate the impact and influence of the lady that started it all, the first director of the Nursing Studies Unit, Elsie Stephenson.

In the beginning

The idea of nursing as a subject fit for study at university level was first suggested in 1900 by Mrs Bedford Fenwick, a British nurse who campaigned for a nationally recognised certificate for nursing.

America led the way with the first chair of nursing at Teachers College, Columbia in 1907 but it was not until 1956 that a European university followed suit with the formation of the Nursing Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh.

A lack of academic attainment

It is reported that Elsie decided to become a nurse at the age of three after her father died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. Her timing was fortuitous as the role of nurses during the First World War greatly enhanced their status and the Nurses’ Act of the same year introduced registration and began a journey to professional status.

Despite this increase in professionalism, Elsie had failed her school leaving certificate examinations and her subsequent career which included community nursing work in Newcastle upon Tyne and overseas work during and after World War II on behalf of the British Red Cross Society, did not make her an obvious candidate for the post of Director of the Nursing Studies Unit.

Elsie Stephenson

An Edinburgh pioneer

The appointment was not met with approval amongst the senior nursing establishment, partly because she was an outsider and partly because she wasn’t a graduate.

In time she overcame this opposition, built confidence and became admired for her commitment to building academic nursing in the university.

Her biographer Sheila Allan puts this down to her no nonsense practical personality.

Elsie carried out her role of ventilating stale areas in the nursing world, thereby allowing the wind of change to blow through, with panache. Her skills of oratory were enhanced by her genius for annexing the wisdom of others.

Sheila Allan. Fear not to sow: the story of Elsie Stephenson, first director of university nursing studies in Europe Cornwall: Patten Press, 1990

A long lasting legacy

Elsie died in 1967 at just 51 years of age but her influence lived on.

In the Elsie Stephenson Memorial Lecture, alumna Professor Fiona Ross describes her legacy as being that, she established nursing as a serious academic subject in one of our oldest and most distinguished universities.

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