Obituary: Iris Irven
Thursday 22 January 1998
Iris Irven influenced the development of community nursing in three continents.
Fifty years ago at the start of the National Health Service in 1948, she co-authored District Nursing, the standard textbook on what is now called community nursing - caring for patients in their own homes - something on which the health service, faced with ever-rising hospital costs, was to place more and more emphasis. Significantly it was described as a handbook not only for district nurses but for "all concerned in the administration of district nursing services".
Iris Irven was named after a warship - HMS Iris - by her naval captain father. On leaving school she worked as a clerk before training as a nurse at University College Hospital from 1926 to 1930, as a midwife in 1932 and as a health visitor, 1934-35. Not for her a hospital career. She wanted to be with patients and their families in their homes as nurse, midwife and health visitor educator.
Her first management post was as assistant superintendent of district nursing in Worcester. Her first superintendent's post came in 1939 at Hastings. Organising home care in Hell Fire Corner during the Second World War, with for a period the imminent threat of invasion and always bombardment from across the English Channel, was a taxing management exercise.
After the war Irven went in 1948 to Birmingham as senior superintendent of home nursing. She wrote her textbook with Eleanor Merry, who was superintendent at the Queen's Nursing Institute.
Britain was now pioneering home nursing in countries under British influence. In 1953 Irven, then in charge of health visiting in north-west England, was seconded to Malaya as team supervisor under Lady Edwina Mountbatten's St John's Ambulance initiative. It was the time of the Communist rebellion. The Communist leadership, realising her usefulness to the village people and the bad publicity which would follow if they killed her, sent a message telling her to mark her vehicle with two large red crosses. They knew how fearless she was in her health and welfare work in the jungle.
Returning to the UK in 1955 as senior assistant superintendent at Rochdale, Irven joined the headquarters staff of the Queen's Institute of District Nursing. She was seconded once more - to Kenya - to pioneer a nursing and health care programme based on the Native Civil Hospital at Embu. She stayed until 1958, when she returned to be matron of the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association hospital at Wimbledon. She was due to retire in 1959 but stayed on until 1961, then moving to Hanwood near Shrewsbury, where two operations for cancer and a broken arm failed to stop her work for the Church, which blindness eventually halted.
A keen cyclist, at the age of 82 Iris Irven clocked up 10,000 miles cycling through the Shropshire lanes and was photographed in the local paper.
She never married. Her father refused her permission to marry her teenage sweetheart. She never loved anyone else and never forgot him. To the end of her life his name could move her to tears.
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