Mona Grey: Health care advocate and Northern Ireland's first chief nursing officer

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The Independent Online

Mona Grey, Northern Ireland's first chief nursing officer, who put Northern Ireland nursing on the map, was small in stature but a tough and shrewd political operator. She dedicated her life to nursing, and even from her care home bedroom in her 80s and 90s she kept in touch, including active advocacy for the quality of residential care for old people. She wrote a textbook, Progressive Professional Nursing, and was also a playwright, utilising this to the benefit of her profession. She also studied the stock market.

Born and brought up in India – her parents were missionaries in Rawalpindi – she went to St Bede's College, Shimla, "the only place in India where a British girl could take a very high diploma in teaching", and became a headmistress before she was 18, at "a very tiny little Indian school". But the first rumblings of home rule for India were in the air by the 1930s. Grey decided to return to what she regarded as home, although she had been born under the shadow of the Himalayas.

In Britain she was offered a teacher's job in the north of England, but that did not appeal to her. Instead, she made a lateral move. Aged 23, she enrolled as a probationer (student) nurse at the Royal London Hospital (then just The London Hospital) in Whitechapel. "As a rather mature person with a teaching background, I found life very, very difficult at the start," she recalled. It was made even more difficult for Grey because of her upbringing in the British Raj; in India, she said, she had never even learned to tie her own shoelaces ("I had little Indians doing everything for me").

As a student nurse, Grey "did naughty things, like throwing away dressings I should never have thrown away", but after she qualified, she was soon offered an appointment as a ward sister. A ceremonial accompanied the installation of a sister at the London. Grey put on her sky-blue uniform in the deputy matron's sitting room, then knelt for her cap, with its long frilly tails, to be placed on her head. "You had to take six hairpins with you," she recalled. Sisters at the London also knelt when they said prayers in the ward at the start of every day. "You could happen to be kneeling behind a patient's locker and might notice that his towels hadn't been changed. So you could be saying: 'Our Father which art in heaven – which nurse looked at that locker this morning? See me afterwards – Thy Kingdom come... '"

Grey, like many nurses, thinking a cigarette relieved tension, took up smoking ("that's why I ended up as a cardiac case at the end of my career"). She smoked very feminine, ivory-tipped cigarettes.

Grey also qualified as a midwife at the London, then an essential step in career progression. During the Second World War, in which the hospital was badly bombed, she became the youngest night matron on duty. She once stood helpless as a patient disappeared when the floor disintegrated beneath the bed.

In 1946 the Royal College of Nursing asked Grey to establish a branch in Northern Ireland. She set about raising money to provide it with an office, writing pageants and plays to bring in cash. Always one who went straight to the top, she secured patrons such as the Countess of Downshire. She also got hospital joiners to construct the scenery. Her friend, the comedienne Gwen Gracey Johnston, was the producer. Grey's Cavalcade of Nurses (1951) was followed by The Immortal Tapestry (1952), The Heritage (1953), Human Harvest (1954) and Miss Carson Returns (1955). She persuaded the Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Wakehurst, to open Hillsborough Castle for another fund-raising event. So many people came that provisions ran out. Grey saved the situation by redirecting a hospital food van.

Grey became the first salaried secretary of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, enthusiastically supporting health visitors and warmly welcoming the coming of male nurses. In 1960, she was appointed chief nursing officer to the province's department of health and social services, where she played a central role in restructuring the Northern Ireland Health Service.

When she retired in 1975, she did not leave the nursing stage. Honours rained down on her. She was appointed an OBE; the Royal College of Nursing made her a Fellow and Honorary Vice-President; and in 2002, she was the first recipient of the RCN Northern Ireland Lifetime Achievement Award. The University of Ulster awarded her an honorary doctorate – she proudly displayed the certificate in her room in a care home and insisted on being addressed as Dr Grey. Her hobby in retirement was an idiosyncratic celebration of nursing history, in which she was centre stage.

She was a generous, but not a low-profile philanthropist. She contributed to the creation of Ireland's first nursing research centre at the University of Ulster and established the Dr Mona Grey Endowment Fund at Queen's University, Belfast. As a vice president of the Florence Nightingale Foundation, she funded a scheme for student nurses from every UK university to come to the annual students' day at St Thomas's Hospital, London, where Florence Nightingale created the first nurses' training school. Earlier this year, Grey paid for the Nurses League at her old hospital, the Royal London, to put on a display of photographs of six well-known nurses: earlier, she presented the League with a symbolic lamp of nursing.

As a resident in a care home herself, she also concerned herself with standards for the care of old people nationally. And in her nineties, she even volunteered to be a decoy in a Watchdog exposé of unscrupulous, high-pressure selling to vulnerable old people.

To her, nursing, as she defined it in 1953, was "a spiritual fulfilment of 'People-First' duty."

Laurence Dopson

Mona Grey, OBE, nurse leader: born Rawalpindi, 24 September 1910; died Holywood, County Down 27 May 2009.