Obituaries: Theodora Turner

Laurence Dopson
Tuesday 31 August 1999 23:02

THEODORA TURNER was the only matron of St Thomas' Hospital, London, who kept a parrot. She was also a skilled landscape painter in watercolours - and a smoker. But above all she was a nurse and a leader with empathy for patients and staff. She died aged 92 last week in the nursing home run by Anglican nuns of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, St Katherine's House, Wantage.

Born in Congleton, Cheshire, in 1907 she had no particular connections with nursing or medicine, although an ancestor had presented the Turner Home of Rest at the Dingle, a poor area in Liverpool. Her family included clerics and one of Nelson's captains - Sir William Hoste Bt. She went to the Godolphin School, Salisbury, and then her parents sent her to "Atholl Crescent", the well-known School of Domestic Science in Edinburgh. But her mind was made up. She would be a nurse. Her parents did not object.

"T", as she was to be known among nurses throughout her career, entered St Thomas' Hospital and the Nightingale School of Nursing in the summer of 1929, became an outstanding senior probationer within a year, completed her training as a nurse with the silver medal, and boldly rejected the suggestion of the matron, the formidable Dame Alicia Lloyd-Still, that she should join the League of St Barnabas, an Anglican society for nurses. She took her midwifery training at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, then returned to St Thomas' as "Sister Charity", taking her title from her ward.

When war broke out in 1939 Turner joined the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, was mobilised at Congleton, was involved in the evacuation from Dunkirk, served in Iran and at the military hospital at Bari, in Italy, was a member of the neurological unit under the surgeon Tom d'Abeu. Even in the Army she knew what she wanted. Posted to Edinburgh she asked to be sent to Oxford, where her parents lived - and was. During lifeboat drill on a tossing troopship when a volunteer was called for to go over the side and down a swinging rope, however, Turner immediately stepped forward.

At the end of the war Turner was herself a patient in hospital in Naples. On her return to civilian life she was administrative sister at St Thomas', a preparation for her appointment as matron of the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool.

"Tall, slim, attractive-looking", the Liverpool Echo described her as she took up office in January 1948. In retirement she described her years in Liverpool as "difficult". She was younger than her senior staff, had to amalgamate two training schools, and found the atmosphere alien - the matron, for example, was not expected to mix with her staff at meal times: later when she was matron of St Thomas', sisters knew that if matron was eating in the sisters' dining room they were expected to join her. Eventually, though, she made many friends in Liverpool, including fellow Soroptomists.

Turner left Liverpool in 1953 to look after her parents. She took a non- residential post as organiser of the newly opened Royal College of Nursing education centre in Birmingham. When she was free from family commitments she was appointed matron and lady superintendent of nurses of St Thomas'. It was a critical period. The rebuilding of the hospital after its 13 bomb hits during the war had to be planned for. The impact of pressure of social and professional change on nurse education had to be absorbed. She was happy to relax the strict discipline and wanted nurses to be individuals.

She did not walk round the hospital with her pet parrot on her shoulder like Long John Silver, although she was as awesome a figure to nursing staff. The sister looking after the parrot while "T" was on holiday was horrified to find she had left the door of the cage and the window in matron's flat open but managed to persuade the bird to leave the window ledge and return to the cage. The sister felt as "T" felt when she threw out the caviar which a patient at Liverpool had had put in the fridge. When Lady Derby asked for her caviar "T" immediately confessed. "Guess what," she said. "I threw it out because I thought it had gone bad."

Turner deputised as a Royal College of Nursing representative on the Whitley council which negotiated nurses' salaries. She considered they were too low and indeed had problems with St Thomas' over her pension, but she was not a nurse politician, although she became president of the RCN after retirement. "The dullest conference or the most tiresome meeting could be enlivened by the faintest rustle of paper and a hint of peppermints in Miss Turner's row," wrote a "Nightingale", recalling "T's" "outsize sense of humour".

When Turner retired she went to Scotland to share a home with a friend. She served on the Argyll and Clyde Health Board. Ultimately she returned to her "home patch" of the Oxford area.

Theodora Turner, nurse: born Congleton, Cheshire 5 August 1907; ARRC 1944; Matron, Royal Infirmary, Liverpool 1948-53; Education Officer, Education Centre, Royal College of Nursing, Birmingham 1953-55; Matron, St Thomas' Hospital and Superintendent, Nightingale Training School 1955-65; OBE 1961; President, Royal College of Nursing and National Council of Nurses of the UK 1966-68; President, Florence Nightingale International Nurses Association 1971-74; died Wantage, Oxfordshire 24 August 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments