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"A Nurse at War – Emily Peter 1858-1927"
Authors - Joan Woodward and Glenys Mitchell

Reviewed by Dorothy - 20/03/09

Book cover pictures main themes - a Mid-Canterbury sheep station, Emily as a nurse wearing service medals, and war graves.
Book cover pictures main themes - a Mid-Canterbury sheep station, Emily as a nurse wearing service medals, and war graves.
Click here to view a larger version

For readers who enjoy books that throw light on history and the lives of remarkable New Zealanders it was a fortunate chance when Joan Woodward and Glenys Mitchell were given access to the diaries of Emily Peter.

Why were these authors so appropriately skilled for producing this book?
Both had a deep interest in history and were experienced in historical research, as a personal interest and in their library work. For many years they were both on the staff of the library of the Canterbury Museum where their interest in family history in particular developed. They divided the topic between them and each wrote sections of the history which links the material in Emily Peter's diaries.

For me the result provided reading of compelling interest.

The first chapter introduces the reader to the life of the Peter family at Anama, a mid Canterbury sheep station, and in their town house in Christchurch. Although Emily enjoyed farm life in her childhood, "society life" in Canterbury did not satisfy her as an adult, and in her thirties she went to London to train as a nurse.

For twenty five years Joan Woodward was the curator of the Canterbury Museum's collections of art, photographs and architectural drawings. She was well qualified to choose and place interesting images. From the beginning the text is enriched by a fascinating selection of photographs. In this chapter the photographs show Emily as a strong, intelligent, serious-minded young woman.

Nursing in London
Emily completed her training at Westminster Hospital in London and her first diary covers the two-year period spent private casing 1893-1895 – practical experience required to complete the Westminster hospital training.

I found this diary of great interest for two reasons.

The diary gives a detailed picture of conscientious nursing practice in the 1890s. The rigorous training at Westminster Hospital is evident in the emphasis placed on hygiene and appropriate diets in the care of those who were ill. There is frequent mention of the use and effectiveness of poultices to relieve pain. In her records of a case in Lausanne in 1894 she gives a detailed account of the diet, medication, and massage and other treatment given to a young woman being treated in a hotel room.

The entries throw light on Emily's character. Her keen interest in her patients' welfare meant that she frequently sacrificed her own sleep, and her strong belief in the value of the teaching at Westminster Hospital meant that at times she stood her ground and argued with the doctor or other people expressing contrary views on the way the patient should be cared for. She insisted that patients too, especially the very young, should follow her advice. She shows real affection for a number of her patients and her determined adherence to her beliefs is tempered by her sense of humour. I enjoyed her frank account of her experiences and her dealings with others.

The War in South Africa 1899-1901
I found it very helpful to read the chapter written to link the first diary with the second which deals with Emily's nursing in South Africa. This section clarified my rather vague ideas about the Boer War – the issues and the events and the role of the nurses.

The diary gives an unvarnished account of the poor conditions existing in the field hospitals and the courage and unrelenting toil of the nurses working there. She is unsparing in her criticism of the inefficiency of the military authorities which increased the suffering of the soldiers and the difficulties faced by the nurses.

Emily describes the people and the areas where she worked and travelled - an account highlighted by the photographs of the staff, the buildings, the landscape, camps, battlefields and cemeteries.

War in Europe and Emily's Service in Serbia
There follows a short description of her years back in Christchurch, a concise and clear account of the causes of Serbia's involvement in World War I. Emily was determined to serve in yet another war although she was fifty six when it began. She travelled to Britain and joined volunteers going to Serbia where fighting had been followed by a typhus epidemic. Emily's own account of her experiences in Serbia 1914-1916 published in Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand and letters of appreciation from soldiers she nursed in Serbia authenticate the picture of these years.

Service in Egypt
Invalided back to Britain Emily regained her health and was sent to Egypt to nurse soldiers, some of whom were New Zealanders wounded in Gallipoli.

Using her nursing skills during the 1918 influenza epidemic
Health problems meant that she had to return to New Zealand, but she recovered in time to assist in the care of Christchurch victims of the influenza epidemic.

Nine years of retirement
These years were filled with what Emily loved in New Zealand – the farm she inherited from her father, lifelong friends, the South African Veterans' Association, and a trip to Britain.

Her work was recognised by a number of awards. Her medals and other honours and awards are on display at the Ashburton Museum. In March 1927 in Christchurch she was one of three nurses who had given war service and were presented to the Duke of York (later to become King George V1).

In October 1927 Emily Peter died aged 68 after devoting her life to the service of others.

A Nurse at War - Emily Peter 1858-1927 Joan Woodward and Glenys Mitchell
Published Te Waihora Press 2008 ISBN 978-0-908714-09-4

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