Saturday, 8 November 2008

What's in a Name?

Soon after War broke out in 1914, No.3 London General Hospital (Territorial Force) was mobilised at the Royal Patriotic School, Wandsworth Common. The Commanding Officer, Colonel Bruce Porter, agreed to take on a group of men as Royal Army Medical Corps orderlies, all members of the Chelsea Arts Club, who were either too old, or unfit for military service, but who wanted to contribute to the war. Thus, he accumulated a wonderful collection of artists, sculptors, writers and poets, and laid the foundations for a hospital journal which became a prince among all others - The 3rd London General Gazette. It contains artwork, poetry both serious and humorous, cartoons, anecdotes of daily life in the hospital - hard to describe such a treasure trove. One of these Chelsea Arts Club men, Ward Muir, became the editor of the Gazette, and continued to write prolifically throughout the war. Here he describes the problems of addressing women in general, and some pitfalls facing the unwary when in the proximity of the trained nurse.

SISTER by J. Ward Muir

"There is a deal of difference, in hospital, between the word Sister and the word Nurse. Sister is, of course, a Nurse. But Nurse is not a Sister. However, there is nothing to prevent you calling Nurse 'Sister' - provided that Sister herself is not at your elbow. If she is, you had better be careful, both for your own sake and for Nurse's.
Some wearily-wise orderlies, and many patients of my experience, apostrophise all the female officials of a hospital as 'Sister.' The plan has its merits... Apart from the fact that it can offend none, and will cajole not a few, some universal appellation of this sort is - the soldier finds - almost a necessity in his constant dealing with women who are strangers to him.
He comes into contact with a host of women, especially after he is wounded; not only nursing women, but women on the ambulances, women who serve refreshments at halting places, women clerks who take his particulars, women who trace casualties, women who transact postal errands, and so on... To address them each indiscriminately as 'Miss' is absurd... 'Madam' is pedantic. 'Nurse' is in many instances manifestly ridiculous; you cannot call a clerical V.A.D. or a Y.M.C.A. waitress 'Nurse.' So, by a process of elimination, 'Sister' is reached.
Thus is comes to pass, the Mlle. Peroxide of the Frivol Theatre who takes a turn at ladling out cups of coffee in a railway-station canteen (with a press photographer handy) finds that the mud-stained Tommies are saying 'Another slice of cake, please, Sister,' or 'Any fags for sale here, Sister?' The Duchess, too, who is cutting bread-and-butter hears herself hailed by the same designation. And if both Miss Peroxide and the Duchess are not flattered (and maybe a little moved, too) I should be surprised.
For really, you know, 'Sister' is the happy word. It fits the situation - all such situations. Wouldn't it be possible to add one perfect touch; that our women comrades should drop into the habit of addressing us as 'Brother'? Officers and men alike - 'Brother'! It would be a symbol, this, of what the war ought to mean to us all; a fine collaboration of high and low, equals in endeavour...

When I was first put into a ward to serve as an orderly I was instructed beforehand that the only person to be entitled Sister was the goddess with the Stripes. Eager to be correct, I addressed the Staff Nurse as 'Nurse.' At once I divined there was something wrong. Her lips tightened. In a frigid voice she informed me of the significance of the Cape: all Cape-wearers held a status equivalent to that of a commissioned officer in the army, and must be treated as such by privates like myself. All Cape-wearers were to be accorded the proper courtesies and addressed as Sister. Furthermore, the speaker, realising that I was now a recruit, and therefore perhaps ignorant, would have me know that all Cape-wearers had undergone certain years of training... The speaker concluded by a sketch of her past career - I was held up in the midst of an urgent job to hearken to it - and a rough estimate of the relative indispensability of the female compared with the male staff. Finally I was dismissed with an injunction to hurry, and finish my incompleted task. 'Very good, Sister,' I replied.
Half an hour later, in a pause in the morning's rush, I was beckoned aside into the ward kitchen by Sister herself. She gently apprised me that, as I was a new recruit, she thought perhaps I was not yet aware of the accurate modes of address and the etiquette customary in a military hospital. Etcetera, etcetera. She had overheard me call the Staff Nurse 'Sister.'

Enough. One may smile at these exhibitions of feminine human nature (and I could match them, absolutely, on the male side), but when all is said and done 'Sister' is a beautiful title, and most of the women who receive it - whether correctly or because, by war service, they have had it bestowed upon them - richly deserve it as a token of gratitude and honour."

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant Sue ... he summed up it most eloquently, almost succinctly and hilariously! Not much changed through the remainder of the century! Fiona