Nursing sisters doing it for themselves
Liz Byrski’s In Love and War: Nursing Heroes and Colleen Ryan Clur’s Pixie Annat: Champion of Nurses both tell difficult and inspiring stories. Byrski anatomises the heroic mythology of the Battle of Britain and the medical treatment provided to severely burned RAF airmen at the maxillofacial hospital in the small Sussex town of East Grinstead. Clur considers the life of Queensland nurse Pixie Annat and her legacy as a hugely influential figure in Australian medical history.
Both books draw on nursing experiences borne out of World War II. However, while Byrski examines the boundaries between emotional rehabilitation, masculine identity, sexual harassment and female liberation in the experimental Ward III at East Grinstead, Clur tells the story of Annat’s nursing career as it extends beyond the war to the “top possie” at Brisbane’s St Andrew’s Hospital.
At the opening of her book, Byrski reflects on the town in which she grew up, populated by “men with terrible faces”. She recalls a childhood encounter with one of these young, damaged men, his face “a mass of purple scars”, “bulbous lips” and “eyes — one angled slightly lower than the other” that seemed “to travel in different directions under the scarred and browless forehead”. Fainting at the sight of him and injuring herself in the fall, she woke up in emergency still reeling from the sight of the disfigured man. Her childhood fear transformed into adult shame at how her reaction must have affected a broken young man.
The masculine world of the RAF was alluring to young men with an appetite for risk. But the aircraft that were so integral to their sense of identity were also the source of some of the most severe injuries of the war. Tracing the design of the aircraft, the flyers’ burns mapped terrible patterns on their bodies. The cockpit was situated behind the main fuel tanks, which exploded when hit by enemy fire, torching the face, neck, hands and the insides of the thighs with fuel and fire. The unrelenting pain of injury, the fear of a lost future, and the crisis of identity and masculinity created by facial and bodily disfigurement meant the men in Ward III were severely traumatised.
The reconstruction of these airmen physically and mentally was the inspiration for a groundbreaking therapeutic experiment pioneered by Archibald McIndoe, a gifted maxillofacial surgeon. He treated them with respect, never shielding them from the truth of their injuries. So adamant was McIndoe on this point that in an effort to reduce their fear, he encouraged his patients to sit in an observation gallery to watch him operate on other patients in the ward. For a man who many saw as unsympathetic and detached, McIndoe showed an extraordinary empathy with “his boys”.
As part of their rehabilitation, McIndoe felt young men should have access to pretty young nurses. McIndoe’s daughter tells the author, “My father wanted the best nurses and he wanted them to be beautiful and they had to be the sort of women who didn’t mind having their bottom pinched.’’ The boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour came to be defined by what McIndoe thought “his boys” needed for their recovery, rather than what might be fair to his nurses.
Thus Byrski questions the popular construction of World War II as a liberating experience for women, using interviews with nurses from East Grinstead. Joyce, who volunteered as a nurse there in 1940, recalls that sometimes the patients would “try and kiss you or put their arms round you, maybe sneak up behind you … so every day, going to work, you knew you’d not only have to do your job, but you’d have to cope with that”. Asked why she didn’t leave, Joyce replies, “I was so ignorant I didn’t even know I could leave. And what would I say to mum?” Now in her 90s, she admits to feeling “stupid and ashamed”, telling the author it was a “great relief” to finally relate her account to someone.
Likewise, Nancy volunteered to work at East Grinstead, where one of her patients became her first husband. During her interview Nancy is oddly resistant to Byrski’s questioning and, as the author finally resolves to leave, suddenly states that McIndoe “didn’t do us any favours … In Love and War: Nursing Heroes By Liz Byrski Fremantle Press, 216pp, $24.99 Pixie Annat: Champion of Nurses By Colleen Ryan Clur UQP, 111pp, $34.95 he told the men they were heroes and that meant they could have whatever they wanted ... my husband, he thought that was his due. Unfaithful to me all his life he was. Two women he had affairs with turned up at his funeral. No, whatever he did for the men, he never did us any favours.”
Most violently of all, Alice recalls a patient dragging her into an unlit passage and trying to bully her into having sex with him. Though she managed to escape, she sustained bruising on her arm and was traumatised by the incident. Like the other nurses, she didn’t tell her parents because at a time when “sex and nudity [were] considered rude and dangerous” she was “sure they’d think it was my fault”.
Annat’s nursing experience grew out from the shadow of World War II but reaches far beyond the wartime nursing narrative. In her book, Clur focuses on Annat, now in her 80s, and her celebrated career as a nurse, matron, hospital chief executive and committed member of multiple medical boards.
Bored of the repetitive nature of secretarial work, and inspired by her mother’s wartime nursing career, the teenaged Pixie filled in a training application form early in 1948. As a nurse in postwar Australia, she worked 12-hour days, starting at 6am and finishing at 6pm, with duties that included cleaning bed pans until they shone “like mirrors”.
The author observes with admiration that “the low pay, hard work and low status as a junior nurse” did not deter Annat from the profession. In fact, her passion for nursing enthused her at a time when young nurses were becoming more outspoken about their wages and working conditions. Keen to lobby for change, Annat was voted the first president of the Student Nurses Unit established at Brisbane General Hospital in 1951.
She continued the fight for improved wages and conditions when she became a matron of St Andrew’s Hospital in 1965 at age 35. At the Ma- trons Association Conference that year she raised with the director-general of health her concerns over Australian nurse education. He suggested that “nice girls like you shouldn’t be involved in industrial relations … you know, Dearie, nurses only have to rub backs and carry pans.” Annat wittily replied, “Well, I hope you are not very sick when you come to hospital, because if that’s all they do for you, you will die.”
Promoted again to the position of chief executive in 1978, Annat’s career advancement was a significant achievement when women were still routinely overlooked for positions of authority. Working 16-hour days, five days a week, as well as Saturday mornings to “catch up on all the things that happened during the week”, and maintaining her extracurricular duties as president of the nurses union, there was no doubt her commitment to St Andrew’s and Australia’s healthcare system dominated her adult working life.
It is with a desire to move beyond burned faces and patient care that Byrski and Clur assess the nature of heroic myth, medical treatment and nursing conditions in East Grinstead and Australia, revealing nursing women to be the enduring strength of the modern medical profession.
A nurse helps airmen having their noses rebuilt in the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead during World War