OBITUARY : Dame Catherine Hall

Dame Catherine Hall worked all her life to raise the professional profile of nursing and to establish its central role in health care.

She was the General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom from 1957 until 1982 - the third General Secretary since its founding in 1916.

Hall recognised the importance of raising the professional status of nursing to improve standards of care. She believed that establishing nursing as a powerful professional group depended on securing a new system of nursing education. In 1964, the RCN reported to the Platt Committee on Education that nurses in training should have student status, and that schools of nursing should be separate from hospitals. Student status for nursing was not achieved until after Catherine Hall had retired, but she laid the foundations of nursing education for the next 30 years.

In 1960, she supported the campaign that lifted the constitutional ban on male nurses joining the RCN. She believed strongly that the RCN should be representative, and in 1969 succeeded in extending the membership to enrolled nurses, and in 1970 to student nurses.

In 1964, she publicly criticised a salary award to nurses of only 2.5 per cent while stressing that they would never take strike action. Sympathetic workers sent in money to the nurses, while others went on strike in support. The Minister of Health at the time, Enoch Powell, was critical, complaining of nurses' "methods of controversy which have caused widespread embarrassment". Hall replied: "the nurses have in fact conducted themselves with great dignity and restraint. In my opinion, as usual the minister has not expressed himself very happily".

Another Secretary of State had a similar encounter. Barbara Castle once told me that she thought Hall was a formidable woman, who towered above her. During a dispute, commenting on Castle's proposals, Hall told her: "Secretary of State, if you do that, I can guarantee that you will not have a single nurse left in the NHS".

In 1977, the RCN registered as a trade union, a development Hall believed was "essential", and in the 1980s it grew faster than any other union. It is now the largest outside the TUC.

Throughout her career, Hall combined a dignified and professional approach to her work with kindness and compassion. When she was a ward sister and assistant matron, she always took responsibility for the nurses she managed, as well as finding time to support and care for patients.

Her colleague and friend Dame Kathleen Raven, a past RCN president and Chief Nursing Officer, said of her: "I don't think people realise how tender-hearted she was. She was always kind and very caring, but always dignified. She was delightful."

Catherine Hall was born in Sheffield in 1922, but moved to Rotherham as a child where her father was Chief Constable. She began her nursing career at Leeds General Infirmary, where she held positions as ward sister, Night Superintendent and Assistant Matron.

She travelled widely in Canada and the United States in 1950-51 on a travelling fellowship, the first ever awarded by the Governors at Leeds Infirmary, and studied methods of teaching and administration in different hospitals. In 1954, after studying at the Royal College of Nursing for a year, she became Assistant Matron at the Middlesex Hospital, London, before becoming RCN General Secretary in 1957.

Her considerable standing in health care meant that she was appointed to innumerable committees, councils and boards. In 1980, she was appointed the first chair of the UK Central Council for Nursing Midwifery and Health Visiting, nursing's statutory body. She also served on the General Medical Council (1979-89), and as a member of the Commission on Industrial Relations (1971-74).

Internationally, she represented the United Kingdom on the International Council of Nurses, as well as sitting on the expert panel of the World Health Organisation. In 1967, she was appointed CBE in the New Year's Honours, which coincided with the end of the RCN's Golden Jubilee year, and in 1982, just before her retirement as General Secretary, she was appointed DBE.

During her retirement, Hall chaired a committee in her home diocese of Plymouth which reviewed the social care provided by the diocese. She went on to chair the Plymouth Diocesan Committee for Social Care, which is responsible for increasing awareness in the South West about the growing need for social care, particularly since the Government's community care legislation.

Christine Hancock

Catherine Mary Hall, nurse: born Sheffield 19 December 1922; Assistant Matron, Middlesex Hospital, London 1954- 56; General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom 1957-82; CBE 1967, DBE 1982; FRCN 1976; Chairman, UK Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting 1980-85; died 26 August 1996.

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