Florence Kaye

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The Independent Online

Florence Elizabeth Kaye, hospital matron: born Delph, Yorkshire 28 December 1898; Matron, Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen 1935-58; Chairman, Scottish Board, Royal College of Nursing 1945-47; OBE 1951; died Harrogate, Yorkshire 8 May 2001.

Florence Kaye was the golf-playing Scottish matron who accompanied the Queen on one of her first public engagements, and in the Thirties went to Leningrad to study Soviet health services.

The Matron of the Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen, who in 1935-36 supervised its move to its present site, was in fact a Yorkshirewoman, born in Delph, West Riding, in 1898. She trained first as a sick children's nurse at Manchester Children's Hospital, Pendlebury, then took her general training at the General Infirmary, Leeds.

In 1926 she gained the first diploma in nursing awarded by Leeds University. In 1930 she was appointed assistant matron at Clayton Hospital, Wakefield, and three years later Deputy Matron at Leeds Infirmary, from where she applied for the post of Matron at Aberdeen in 1935. She was put on the shortlist of applicants for interview on 26 July but wrote that she was unable to attend as she was leaving the country on 12 July: she was off to Russia to study the health service under the Soviet 10-year plan. She was interviewed in Aberdeen on 8 August and accepted the appointment the same day.

As matron of a voluntary hospital part of her work was to receive donations from patients as a contribution to their keep and receive gifts for the hospital. The infirmary got venison from the King at Balmoral and Lord Glentannar gave fruit, vegetables and rabbits. When he sent a hundred rabbits, however, the kitchen staff revolted. Kaye called for volunteers among the sisters and with these skinned the lot. She never wanted to see or eat another rabbit.

Professionally, moving the Royal Infirmary from its 200-year-old site was a formidable logistics exercise. New additional staff had to be appointed – and the matron was responsible for appointing not only nurses but maids and masseurs (physiotherapists). The transfer of patients had to be scheduled. Matron had to think about linen for the nurses' home. "Quite a number of nurses whose homes were in Aberdeen lived out," she remembered. "In future, of course, they would all be living in the nurses' home."

She found no preliminary training school was allowed for in the new infirmary but set one up, although some sisters thought a training school was unnecessary. She also got more pay for trainee nurses.

Whilst the Matron of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in Kaye's day was not responsible for emergency nursing planning for the Royal Family – Balmoral then looked to the private Watson Fraser Nursing Home – she early had contact with them. The Duke of York, the future King George VI, came to open the new infirmary. When he asked Kaye to present the elderly sisters to him, she had to send word around hurriedly and got them all together. ("The Duke was quite interested in Sister Stopani, because she spoke to him in Buchan dialect.")

After Princess Elizabeth fulfilled her first solo public engagement, on 3 October 1944, she went to the Royal Infirmary to join her mother and Princess Margaret. "The Queen raised Princess Elizabeth's hat," Kaye recalled in 1991. "I don't know if it was too much to the side, but she put it right, you see, and we set off round the wards. I think I went with Princess Elizabeth."

Through the war years, Kaye conceded, the Royal Infirmary sailed close to the wind because of the shortage of trained nursing staff, with wards without a trained nurse. Recruitment of student nurses, however, was not a problem, with the north of Scotland as her catchment area. The coming of the NHS presented opportunities rather than problems, securing representation of nurses on its management. Kaye was the first nurse to serve on the North-east of Scotland Hospital Board.

But the matron who had studied a Communist health service pre-war did not agree with NHS consultants' being allowed to do private work as well, in the Health Minister Aneurin Bevan's "stuffing their mouths with gold" compromise. When a doctor complained that he couldn't live on £2,000 a year, Kaye told him a lot of people lived on less. "My gross salary when I left years later in 1958 was not £1,000 a year."

Kaye was chairman of the Scottish Board of the Royal College of Nursing in 1945-47 and a member of its UK council. She was active too in the Scottish General Nursing Council (she was critical of midwives' reluctance to allow student nurses into maternity hospitals for training experience), the Scottish Matrons Association and the International Council of Nurses. From 1951 to 1954 she was a member of the Scottish Health Services Council.

Laurence Dopson