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Obituary: Dame Nita Barrow

Ruth Nita Barrow, nurse and public servant: born Barbados 15 November 1916; Sister Tutor, Kingston School of Nursing, Jamaica 1952-54; Matron, UCH, Jamaica 1954-56; Principal Nursing Officer, Jamaica 1956-63; World Health Organisation nursing adviser, Caribbean Area 1964-71, associate director, Medical Commission, World Council of Churches 1971-75, director 1975-81; DA 1980, GCMG 1990; FRCN 1980; ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations 1986-90; Governor-General of Barbados 1990-95; died Bridgetown, Barbados 19 December 1995.

The designation "the People's Governor-General" has been adopted by Barbadians to describe Dame Nita Barrow, the first woman Governor- General of Barbados, who took office in 1990. The title connotes all the human attributes which the nation came to associate with its most distinguished citizen.

Nita Barrow was the second of five children, one of whom was Errol Barrow, a former Prime Minister of Barbados, founder of the present opposition party and architect of Independence. She was a member of the family grouping of O'Neal, Barrow and Springer, which in three generations produced, besides Errol Barrow, Charles Springer, the founder of Scouting in Barbados; Dr Duncan O'Neal, the political leader and Gold Medallist of Edinburgh University; Sir Hugh Springer, the trade unionist and Nita Barrow's predecessor as Governor-General; and Christopher Springer, the distinguished mathematician and attorney-at-law.

Having completed a basic training in nursing, Nita Barrow undertook further study at the School of Nursing of Toronto University, with the support of a Rockefeller Fellowship. She later continued her training with specialist study at the Royal College of Nursing of Edinburgh University in 1951- 52 and at Columbia University in 1962-63. Her period of service as Instructress at the West Indies School of Public Health in Jamaica in 1945-50 was quickly followed by appointments to posts of local and regional responsibility in the Nursing and Public Health fields as the first West Indian Matron of the University College Hospital in 1954 and the first Principal Nursing Officer of Jamaica in 1956.

From 1964, Barrow's service to the West Indies region was expanded when she became the director of a research project in nursing in the Commonwealth Caribbean. This project resulted in the re- organisation and upgrading of training of nurses in the region, and led subsequently to the introduction of Advanced Studies in Nursing at the University of the West Indies.

Barrow's service to the Caribbean region was matched by her international service through the World YWCA, which began when she attended the 1951 Council in Beirut. Her appointment as Associate Director of the Christian Medical Commission (CMC) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1971 and as Director four years later provided her with the opportunity to lead and promote primary health care and direct Western thinking towards recognition of, and respect for, traditional medicine and its practitioners.

Her purposeful involvement in advancing the status of women was never separate from her professional interests, so that it became almost impossible to separate her voluntary service from that of her profession. Barrow's travels to very many countries as Director of the CMC of the WCC, as World President of the YWCA and as President of the International Council of Adult Education also provided an opportunity for her to assist in improving the status of women.

Her practice of genuine equality of treatment of all people put others at their ease whether she was at the 125th anniversary of the YWCA (UK), or sharing minimal accommodation and comfort while visiting a rural outpost of primary health care several miles south of Khartoum. Her success as convenor of the conference marking the end of the UN Decade for Women (1985) most certainly led to her being nominated as the only woman on the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) set up to visit South Africa (1986) and "encourage through all practicable ways the evolution of [that] necessary process of political change . . ." That within eight years Barrow was able to participate in the celebration of democracy as a way of life in South Africa was one of her most precious memories.

So-called retirement from professional and vocational service, having made her available as a member of the EPG, also led to the call of her native Barbados to serve as its Permanent Representative at the United Nations, where one of her first addresses was on the status of women. As an active member of Unifem and similar women's organisations, Barrow's counsel was sought world-wide. Her dutiful answer in 1990 to the call, for that is what it was, by the people of Barbados to be their Governor-General appeared to make her more available to the world.

Such involvement increased her sensitivity to duty as a "world citizen" and the need for her to project into her own island state equanimity, tolerance and caring, all-essential ingredients for national unity, particularly in occasional times of unease.

Barrow's most recent international involvement included that with the 21st Century Leadership Programme (Lead), the Conference of Environment and Development (Ecodef) in 1992, followed by the Conference of Small Island Developing States (1994). Her last international meetings were associated with the 50th anniversary of the UN when she chaired the committee to select 50 communities around the world which have used innovative methods to improve the quality of life.

Woodie Blackman