Hidden Disabilities and Invisible Illnesses
: Identity and Agency in Britain’s Disabled First World War Nurses

  • Amanda Gwinnup

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The women who served as trained and semi-trained nurses with Britain’s military nursing services were women whose identity was greatly influenced by their nursing roles. Their activity as nurses has often been examined as though they were passive in the war, but the diaries and published memoirs indicate differently. Nurses saw their participation as active and just as importantly others viewed their participation as active as well which helped to influence the government over their right to disability compensation. Through the examination of disability pension records and service records pertaining to nurses held at the National Archives, London the level of agency these nurse veterans possessed as they sought compensation and treatment for war-related disabilities will be explored. Previous research has only examined the experiences of nurses with psychological disabilities leaving more than two-thirds of the pension record untouched by historians. A great many nurses suffered from debilitating illnesses and war-related psychological conditions as a result of their service. They encountered pathogens and parasites in every location that nurses served. The complex nature of their work with injured and ill servicemen left some physically and mentally exhausted. Those that were unable to cope with stress and strain went on to develop psychological conditions leaving them disabled and unable to carry on with their lives as they had pre-war. Nurses also endured physical dangers inherent with modern warfare. In particular the naval attacks on troop and hospital ships, of which many were lost and cost the lives of numerous nurses. While many nurses recuperated without lasting complications, it is probable that thousands suffered for years after they demobilised from military nursing service. With the support of campaigners and advocates disabled nurses were incorporated into the disability pension scheme and were pensioned through the officer’s branch of the Ministry of Pensions. Nurses actively participated in the pension process and many had agency over their treatment options. The State, through the Ministry of Pensions acknowledged their war service and their sacrifices in the same manner that they acknowledged the service and sacrifice of servicemen.
Date of Award20 Jul 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRob Ellis (Main Supervisor) & Rebecca Gill (Co-Supervisor)

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