G. A. Ramsden

Mountbatten's nursing sister
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The Independent Online

Gertrude Ann Ramsden, nurse and researcher: born Stockton on Tees, Co Durham 4 January 1906; ARRC 1944, RRC 1946; married 1969 Capt Edward Cooper RN (died 1980); died Preston, Lancashire 13 November 2004.

G. A. Ramsden wanted to travel - that was why, in her thirties, she resigned as assistant matron of Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, and took a humbler job as a sister on P&O liners. During the Second World War she was on the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who named his personal Dakota aeroplane Sister Ann after her.

On demobilisation, Ramsden became matron-in-chief to the ill-fated groundnuts scheme, the post-war Labour government's project to help Africa and provide Britain with margarine. In 1943 she wrote the Handbook of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Staff, and she was a pioneer of nursing research.

Gertrude Ann Ramsden was the fifth generation in her family to be called Ann. To her own family she was "Gertie". At Preston Grammar School, she was a brilliant scholar and head girl, and when she trained as a nurse at the Middlesex Hospital, London, she won the gold medal in 1929. She qualified as a midwife, also at the Middlesex, and took the diploma of nursing at London University. Unusually she nursed patients with tropical diseases. She also took the sister tutor's diploma.

After being a sister tutor at the Middlesex she was appointed assistant matron of the leading specialist eye hospital, Moorfields. In 1938, however, she decided to go to sea and became a nursing sister with P&O liners - they weren't cruise ships then - and sailed to Australia on SS Strathnaver and to Japan on SS Chitral. She was in Sydney when war broke out.

Returning to Britain, she joined two other London teaching hospitals. When St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, evacuated to Park Prewett Hospital, Basingstoke, it formed a joint training school with St Thomas' Hospital. In August 1942 Ramsden enlisted in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS), and was serving at the then Royal Naval Hospital Haslar when she received secret orders to join South East Asia Command (Seac) as nursing sister to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (the future Earl Mountbatten of Burma) and his senior officers. She had, after all, experience of tropical diseases. "Fortunately," she said, "the senior staff officers were healthy men."

Within three weeks of arrival in Delhi, Ramsden was invited to Sunday luncheon at Faridot House, where Mountbatten's "warm welcome and appreciation of the work of the QARNNS nursing sisters impressed me". Soon Ramsden was nursing Mountbatten, when he had an attack of fever. She found him "an excellent, co-operative patient". On 28 April 1945, Mountbatten was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery. Ramsden was summoned to Ceylon to nurse him at the King's Pavilion, Kandy. She recalled:

He proved most co-operative, being his usual social self and well able to continue his work. The sick room became a centre of activities. He always treated me as a specialist in my own field. His searching questions covering medical and nursing matters revealed his curiosity, seldom met in the average patients, and a happy relationship was established between patient and nurse.

With the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945, the role of the fighting forces changed to that of rescue work to save life. The first priority was to locate 125,000 Allied prisoners of war scattered throughout the Command. They were in an appalling state. Ramsden and another sister, Lucy Hesmondhalgh, volunteered to help first in Singapore, then in Java. There they found 9,000 Dutch women and children in Tjideng camp, "a pool of misery founded by the Japanese". Throughout her life Ramsden treasured a set of spoons which one Dutch lady had hidden during the occupation and gave her as a present.

While serving in the QARNNS Ramsden, with her sister tutor background, assisted in the preparation of the Handbook of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Staff. For her naval nursing she was appointed ARRC (Associate of the Royal Red Cross) in 1944. "Well deserved in view of your outstanding service to the personnel of this headquarters," Mountbatten wrote to her. She was promoted to RRC in 1946.

After demobilisation Ramsden took on another overseas posting under the Overseas Food Corporation. She became matron-in-chief of the groundnuts scheme, when three temporary hospitals "for native and European industrial workers" were set up at Kingwa, Mkwaye and Nachingwea in Tanganyika. The scheme proved a spectacular disaster. Ramsden wrote an account of her work with it in the Nursing Mirror in 1949.

Back in the United Kingdom, Ramsden entered a new career phase, as research organiser with the Dan Mason Research Committee. She produced a series of seminal reports between 1956 and 1973, looking at the work of newly qualified nurses, of the staff nurse, of enrolled nurses and of midwives. In Marriage and Nurses: a survey of State Registered and State Enrolled Nurses (1967), she and Muriel Skeet found nurses gave up nursing because of its lack of crèches and part-time work that could be fitted in with bringing up children. As a result of the report's recommendations, crèches and flexible working were introduced in the NHS.

Ramsden was the technical adviser on Life in Her Hands (1951), a film aimed at nurse recruitment, which featured Katherine Byron. In 1956 she was one of four British nurses at the first international conference on planning nursing research studies. She retired from nursing at 60 but remained a nursing examiner until she was 75. When she was 63 she married a widower, Capt Ted Cooper, a retired naval officer whom she had met in Seac days.

Small in stature, Ramsden was very energetic and had a great sense of humour. She liked sewing, loved gardening and was a prolific letter writer. And she achieved her ambition to travel. "I travelled the world at somebody else's expense," she used to say with satisfaction in her nineties.

Laurence Dopson