Eileen Rees: Pioneer of nursing education

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Eileen Rees was one of the most distinguished nurses of her generation. Having honed her skills and gained a wealth of experience at the heart of action in the Second World War, she was to become a key figure in her profession and a pioneer of nursing education.

She was born in Cardiff, the daughter of the Rev Frederick Rees and his wife Charlotte. He was a canon of Llandaff and vicar of St Catherine's, Canton. Eileen was therefore brought up in Cardiff's dockland almost a century before it became fashionable. She went to Howell's School in Llandaff, and was offered a place at University College Cardiff (as it then was) to read French. She chose to be a nurse instead, however – for the daughter of a clergyman, with brothers who were looking to careers in medicine and the church, the choice of a profession of service was a family tradition.

She trained at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, was gold medallist of her year when she qualified and subsequently added a midwifery qualification. Her father wrote to her on her 21st birthday, in a letter that still survives, to say how proud her parents were of all she had achieved. There was much more achievement to come. In the Second World War she served with the Territorial Army in the North African campaign, for much of the time as a theatre sister in tented hospitals in the desert. While she was on leave after Rommel had been defeated, her ship back to Britain was diverted to Valletta and she found herself caught up in the siege of Malta.

The war took its toll, and when she finally reached home a doctor ordered her to drink a pint of stout a day to put back some of the weight she had lost. Perhaps not for the first time and certainly not the last, she thought she knew better than a mere doctor and ignored him. What she had lost in weight she had gained in professional experience and self-confidence, and both were to be put to good use.

Immediately after the war, Eileen Rees was awarded a Nightingale Scholarship, which took her to the University of Toronto to study for an Advanced Certificate in Nursing Education and Administration, at a time when there were no nursing courses in British universities. On her return in 1947, she registered as a nurse tutor, the beginning of a lifelong interest in nurse education. She returned to Cardiff as a tutor at the Royal Infirmary, but was tempted away from Wales as assistant matron, later deputy matron at St George's, at that time still in its magnificent building at Hyde Park Corner. There she worked under Muriel Powell, a seminal influence on her life and career. She returned to Cardiff in due course as matron of the Royal Infirmary, where she had been a student and where her widowed mother was still living.

In Cardiff, she entered the last and most influential phase of her career. As well as being the outstanding matron of a well-managed hospital, she became a national figure. Along with Muriel Powell, she served on the Royal Commission, chaired by Brian Salmon, which, reporting in 1966, restructured nursing to complete its transformation from a calling into a profession. Throughout her career, Rees was active in the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

She was a founder-member of the RCN's Welsh Board, was Chair of Council 1961-64 and was responsible for the opening of the RCN's office in Cardiff. She was an untiring advocate of the cause of nurses and nursing, and never afraid to take a strong line when she thought it necessary. After one exhausting meeting in London, she missed her train rather than accept a lift from a minister – Enoch Powell – with whom she had strongly disagreed. Wider public recognition came in due course. She was appointed OBE in 1968. When she retired in 1977 she was elected to a well-deserved Honorary Fellowship of the RCN.

The changes Eileen Rees inspired were reflected in the changes she led. The last matron of the Cardiff Royal Infirmary became the first chief nursing officer – a title that came from Salmon – of the new University Hospital of Wales. For a nurse who was a manager, educator and professional advocate, it was an ideal appointment. It was to the lasting benefit of the hospital, the Welsh National School of Medicine and indeed the people of Wales that she was at the helm of the institution during its formative years. Wales was important to her. She identified herself as Welsh and was a supporter of devolution, if not of separation.

Rees's life was almost entirely absorbed by her professional activities. She was a woman who exuded energy – when already in middle age, she demonstrated the art of the forward somersault to a niece who had not inherited her family's sporting gene. She could be adventurous when persuaded to take a holiday. In the days before cheap travel made such things commonplace, she and a friend flew to Portugal, at that time still ruled by the Fascist dictator António Salazar. She had forgotten her passport but talked her way on to the plane and, more surprisingly perhaps, into and out of Portugal despite Salazar's police. Even the most cursory acquaintance could never doubt her capacity for action and leadership.

When she retired, she continued to take an interest in her former colleagues and students, living a quietly happy life with a long-time friend until, in their late eighties, they could no longer manage the ordinary business of life. Even in extreme old age, however, there were flashes of the strength of character she had always demonstrated.

Eileen Rees had enjoyed a remarkable life and a career of public service. A final testimony to her achievements was the large attendance at her funeral, including many nurses whom she had trained and whose careers she had inspired, some of whom had not seen her for more than 30 years but still spoke of her with respect and warmth.

John Feather

Eileen Mary Rees, nurse and nurse educationist: born Cardiff 21 September 1912; OBE 1968; FRCN 1977; died Cardiff 12 February 2008.