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Nurses at Dr Steevens’ Hospital

‘The Nurses of each ward to put the orders of the Physician and Surgeons carefully in execution. To go to the Second Surgeon for the medicines prescribed for the sick, and to administer them, at such times and in such manner, as she shall be directed. To keep her ward clean and to prepare and wash the rollers belonging to it. To assist in washing the large linen and bedding of her ward. To report from time to time to the Steward the diet and drink prescribed for the sick of her ward, and to carry such provisions from the Steward to the Cook, and to be under the direction of the Matron as to what the Matron is to look after.’

Duties of nurses in 1733, as outlined in Kirkpatrick,
History of Dr Steevens’ Hospital, p. 273.

Photograph of nurses in the north basement, c. 1924 (from Kirkpatrick’s History).

The nurses of Dr Steevens’ Hospital are shadowy figures in the history of the Dr Steevens’ Hospital, rarely mentioned in the Board Minutes by name. The earliest record we have of them comes in 1733, the year of the hospital’s foundation, when petitions from Katharine Stockdeile, Ursula Carter and Ann Doyley were read at a meeting of the Governors on 5 July 1733. All three were appointed as nurses on that day and were joined in the years up to 1748 by Margaret Sidgwick, Sara Carter, Rebecca Hazelton, Ann Rooney, Elenor Shreinton, Ann Seagrave, Elinor Beckiull and Sara Fryer. Soon after the opening of the hospital the Governors devolved control of the nurses to the Matron, Mrs Challoner, and, though theoretically the hiring and firing of nurses was to be under the control of the Surgeon and Physician, it was invariably the Matron who discharged this power.

Robert Thompson’s diary of his student days at Dr Steevens’ Hospital in the early nineteenth century reminds us that beyond their nursing duties they were also expected to act as servants to the resident pupils at the hospital.  In the early decades  of the hospital’s existence they were allotted a salary of £12 a year and lodgings in the hospital and this salary did not significantly increase over the years: in 1815 there were only nine nurses, each receiving £20 a year. Significantly, as Kirkpatrick (1924) recounts, of these nine only four were able to write their own names. By the mid nineteenth-century the general lack of education of the nurses was becoming a major source of concern for the Governors and in 1855 they decreed that from then on ‘Nurses and resident servants be free from the burden of families, and be able to read and write’ (the proviso concerning families was because some nurses had either tried to bring in their own daughters to replace them or had attempted to marry a male nurse and live on the premises). Eleven years later, in 1866, the Governors agreed to a plan of Richard Chevenix, Archbishop of Dublin, and his wife, to allow nurses from a newly-founded  nursing school at no 152 James’s Street, to attend to Madam Steevens’ ward  and number VII ward.

Initially the plan seemed to work well but the Governors changed their minds, probably, as Kirkpatrick suggests, because they felt they were loosing control of the nursing staff. By 1878 the medical staff (and in particular Thomas Wrigley Grimshaw) were deeply concerned about the nurses’ lack of education and they brought out the Grimshaw report of 1878. This pointed in stark terms to the deficiencies of the nursing staff, and argued that the management structures dealing with nurses be significantly changed to introduce a superintendent of nurses who would henceforth be responsible for overseeing all nurses. This plan was put into effect thereby greatly improving the standard of nursing at the hospital. Kirkpatrick himself would play a vital role in developing nursing education at Dr Steevens’ Hospital in the early twentieth century.

Portrait of Alice Reeves.

Central to Kirkpatrick’s initiative was the appointment of Miss Alice Reeves (1874-1955) as Lady Superintendent in 1918. Miss Reeves had initially worked as a student nurse at the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin and continued to work there as a member of staff until 1908 when she was promoted to be Matron and Lady Superintendent of the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital. Ten years later she joined the staff of Dr Steevens’ Hospital in the same position and remained there as Matron for the next thirty years. This appointment proved to be of immense importance to Dr Steevens’ Hospital for Miss Reeves was a formidable lady and one of the leading nurses of her time: she would later be elected as President of the Matrons Association on a number of occasions and in 1926 became President of the National Council of Trained Nurses of Eire. As Kirkpatrick, in his article on her life in the RCPI, notes she had been ‘closely associated with the late Miss Margaret Huxley in drafting the scheme for the registration of Irish nurses, and for drawing up the curriculum to be adopted by recognised training schools.’ Both women had played a major role in the subsequent affiliation of the Irish Registered Nurses with the English Nursing Board. As Bryan (2009) recounts, Miss Reeves’ dedication to the cause of nursing received international acknowledged in 1949 when she became the first Irishwoman to receive the Florence Nightingale medal, awarded by the International Red Cross. She was one of a number of nurses at Dr Steevens’ hospital who received honours due to their work during the First World War.


Photograph of plaque to Ada Wood, courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.


Bryan, Deirdre (2009), ‘Reeves, Alice’, Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge University Press).
Kirkpatrick, T. P. C. (1924; reprinted 2008) The History of Doctor Steevens’ Hospital Dublin, 1720-1920 (Dublin).
RCPI TPCK/4/1/2/32: Kirkpatrick article on Alice Reeves.
TCD 3508.

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