The legacy of Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s global vision of nursing

By Howard Catton

Ethel Gordon Fenwick, who founded the International Council of Nurses (ICN) in 1899, grew up in the second half of the 19th Century, a time of massive technological and societal change.

Born in 1857, she lived through the advent of the telephone and the telegraph, the discovery of bacteria, the testing of the first vaccines and the development of X-rays.

But while all this technological change was going on, she was aware of the unchanging plight of many women, a situation that led her to become active in the international suffragist movement.

She recognised the benefits a worldwide network would have for women, but she also saw the potential for an international organisation of nurses to strengthen the profession and make its voice heard across the globe.

As a woman of action, she took her vision out into the world and encouraged newly formed national nursing organisations to join together in the International Council of Nurses (ICN), to maximise their influence on healthcare in nations throughout the world.

This vision, of joining nurses together, sharing best practice and looking after nurses’ welfare, is just as relevant and necessary today.

Now, 120 years on from the formation of ICN, we represent more than 20 million nurses from more than 130 countries in every region of the world.

Our member national nursing associations work together in the same spirit that prevailed in the early days of the organisation, to further the development of the profession and the support of nurses.

“She took her vision out into the world and encouraged newly formed national nursing organisations to join together in the International Council of Nurses”

Like Ethel Gordon Fenwick, we have seen massive technological and societal upheaval in our lifetimes.

Who could have foreseen the effects of the internet, the turmoil that exists in many parts of the world, the extent of the threat of climate change and the massive shifts in geopolitical power that have happened in the past 40 years?

Nursing is a constant that will always be needed, and wherever there is need, nurses will be willing to carry out their duties to the best of their abilities.

But the worldwide shortages of nurses are likely to get worse and fundamental problems at a time of growing need, including a lack of qualified nurses and inadequate education, mean that, more than ever, nurses are going to have to step up and step forward to do the things they do best.

Having the ICN behind them means that nurses will continue to have access to the support that comes from belonging to an organisation that represents more than 20 million other people who all understand the problems and can contribute to the solutions.

With the World Health Organization’s (WHO) decision to declare 2020 The Year of the Nurse and Midwife, it seems to me that the world is at last coming around to the fact that nurses are indispensable.

“Nurses will always care, and what we stand for, our values and ethics, will continue to provide a compass for generations to come”

We lobbied hard for 2020, and for the appointment of a WHO Chief Nursing Officer (a post now occupied by Elizabeth Iro), and WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has always known the value of nurses to healthcare, was supportive from the start.

The Year of the Nurse and Midwife 2020 will give us a new impetus to carry on Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s dream of a profession united around the globe.

It is testament to her vision that the preamble to ICN’s original constitution, which she wrote with colleagues in 1900, still holds true. It reads: 

‘We, nurses of all nations, sincerely believing that the best good of our Profession will be advanced by greater unity of thought, sympathy and purpose, do hereby hand ourselves in a confederation of workers to further the efficient care of the sick and to secure the honour and the interests of the nursing Profession.’ 

In my opinion, Ethel Gordon Fenwick is not as well known or famous as she should be, but our profession owes her a debt of gratitude.  

The next 120 years will no doubt hold unimaginable changes for the societies we live in, and in many ways, nursing will be unrecognisable. 

But I predict this: nursing will remain, nurses will always care, and what we stand for, our values and ethics, will continue to provide a compass for generations to come. 

And that is the true legacy of Ethel Gordon Fenwick and her pioneering peers.

Howard Catton is chief executive officer of the International Council of Nurses

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