BME nurses and midwives instrumental in helping shape the NHS of today

Ahead of the NHS’s 70th anniversary, the Chief Nursing Officer for England shares the amazing achievements and notable milestones of our BME nurses and midwives over the past 70 years.

I am delighted to write this blog today with Professor Laura Serrant, Professor of Nursing in the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing at Sheffield Hallam University and Chair of my national Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) BME Strategic Advisory Group. We mark some of the key achievements of BME nurses and midwives in the forming and shaping of the NHS today. We simply cannot capture every significant event and fantastic individual in this blog, but we hope this encapsulates the huge contribution of BME nurses and midwives across the seven decades of the NHS.

Following the war, the British government encouraged mass immigration from the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth to help re-build Britain. On June 22 1948, the Empire Windrush landed at the port of Tilbury and its passengers came ashore. Many of these passengers were among the first to work in the NHS, which launched just two weeks later on the 5 July.

In 1950, Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1910-1992), became the first qualified black nurse to work in the NHS, having completed her training at the Nightingale School at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and shortly after in 1954, one of the first Chinese nurses from Hong Kong was trained in the UK, Grace Mary Yu, who started work at the NHS Royal Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate. The following year, it was estimated that 3,000 colonial women were training in NHS hospitals across the country and during the 1960s immigration from South Asia increased to equal that of the Caribbean.

The 1960s was a great decade for the NHS, with treatment greatly improved by innovations such as the polio vaccine, chemotherapy and the introduction of renal dialysis.

In 1964 Daphne Steele (1929-2004) was appointed the first Black Matron in the UK at St Winifred’s Hospital in Ilkley, Yorkshire; and just five years later, in 1969, BME nurses made up 25% of NHS hospital staff.

It was in 1979 that Dame Elizabeth Anionwu became the first specialist health visitor in England, working at the Central Middlesex Hospital. This year saw the first nurse-led UK Sickle and Thalassaemia Screening and Counselling Centre set up by pioneering nurses and medical colleagues, including Dame Elizabeth. In 2010, Dame Elizabeth was inducted into the Nursing Times, Nursing Hall of Fame for services to the Development of Nurse-led Services and in 2016 she was presented with the Chief Nursing Officers’ Award for Lifetime Achievement. She was awarded a Damehood in the Queen’s 2017 New Year’s Honours List for services to nursing and the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.

Professor Justus Akinsanya (1936 – 2005) was appointed the first BME Nursing Professor at the Dorset Institute, (now Bournemouth University) in 1985 and three years later became the first BME nurse on the English National Board for Nursing and Midwifery. In 1989 Professor Akinsanya became the first nurse appointed Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor at Anglia Polytechnic University.

In the 1990’s Nola Ishmael was appointed as the first BME private secretary at the Department of Health. As Director of Nursing and Nursing Officer, Nola played a pioneering role in the establishment of the Mary Seacole Leadership Awards, which focus on improving the health and life chances of people from black and minority ethnic groups in the UK.

And in the same decade, Professor David Sallah was awarded the first Mary Seacole leadership award for his work in investigating ‘effectiveness of mental Health services with a view to develop outcomes measures for forensic mental health’. Professor Sallah went on to work on many national developments and enquiries around mental health and BME issues.

In 1997, the Royal College of Midwives appointed Dame Karleen Davis as its first BME General Secretary. She led the RCM through a time of transformation and advancement, both for the College and the Midwifery Profession. Dame Karlene is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was also Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre and elected President of the International Confederation of Midwives, an international non-governmental organisation that unites 85 national midwifery associations from over 75 countries. In 2001, Dame Karlene was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to the National Health Service and Midwifery.

In 2001 the Royal College of Nursing appointed its first black General Secretary, Dr Beverley Malone. Dr Malone completed her training in psychiatric nursing in America and became Instructor of Psychiatric Nursing at Wayne State University in Michigan in 1972. She later obtained her PhD in clinical psychology from Cincinnati University and in ’96 she was elected President of the American Nurses Association.

Professor Laura Serrant, Chair of the CNO BME Advisory Group said: “The first formal meeting of the CNO BME Advisory group took place in 2002. The group was established by Nola Ishmael, along with founding members Paulette Lewis, Lynette Phillips and Mary Clarke. These founding nurses and midwives utilised the expertise, knowledge and experience of senior BME nurses working in the NHS, to contribute to the development of policy and service planning across the organisation. An additional aspiration of the group was to highlight and recognise the potential of BME staff.”

In 2005, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust began to implement the ‘Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health’ policy and won awards for their work. The aim was to break down institutional barriers to accessing and receiving culturally and linguistically appropriate care.

In 2011 Eleanor Smith was appointed Unison’s first black president, and in 2015 the Royal College of Nursing appointed its first BME President in Cecilia Anim CBE.

Today’s NHS is represented by 202 nationalities, making it one of the most ethnically diverse organisations to work for in the UK and indeed the World. There is no doubt that BME nurses and midwives have made a massive contribution to bolstering the workforce and in the shaping of the NHS over the past seven decades.

Laura and I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank all our BME nurses and midwives for their staunch support and amazing achievements over the years. We look forward to the next 70 years and to the contribution that our BME workforce will continue to provide.

Jane Cummings

Professor Jane Cummings is the Chief Nursing Officer for England and Executive Director at NHS England.

Jane specialised in emergency care and has held a wide variety of roles across the NHS including Director of Commissioning, Director of Nursing and Deputy Chief Executive.

In February 2004, she became the national lead for emergency care agreeing and implementing the 98% operational standard. She has also worked as the nursing advisor for emergency care. In January 2005, she was appointed as the National Implementation Director for ‘Choice’ and ‘Choose and Book’.

Jane moved to NHS North West in November 2007 where she held executive responsibility for the professional leadership of nursing, quality, performance as well as QIPP, commissioning and for a time Deputy Chief Executive Officer. In October 2011, she was appointed to the role of Chief Nurse for the North of England SHA Cluster.

She was appointed as Chief Nursing Officer for England in March 2012 and started full time in June 2012. Jane is the professional lead for all nurses and midwives in England (with the exception of public health) and published the ‘6Cs’ and ‘Compassion in Practice’ in December 2012, followed by publishing the ‘Leading Change, Adding Value’ framework in May 2016.

Jane has executive oversight of maternity, patient experience, learning disability and, in January 2016, became executive lead for Patient and Public Participation.

She was awarded Doctorates by Edge Hill University and by Bucks New University, and she is a visiting professor at Kingston University and St George’s University, London.

She is also Director and trustee for Macmillan Cancer Support and a clinical Ambassador for the Over the Wall Children’s Charity where she volunteers as a nurse providing care for children affected by serious illnesses.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneMCummings.

Laura Serrant

Professor Laura Serrant is Professor of Nursing in the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing at Sheffield Hallam University, one of only 6 black Professors of Nursing (out of 262) in the UK. She was also one of the first to qualify as a nurse with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

She has frequently found herself as the sole voice representing nurses and minority communities; a position which she has striven to challenge throughout her career by empowering others to come forward to join her, in a unique call to ‘lift as you climb’. She is one of the 2017 BBC Expert women, Chair of the Chief Nursing Officer for England’s BME Strategic Advisory group and a 2017 Florence Nightingale Scholar. She is an ambassador of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue and the Equality Challenge Unit Race Equality Charter for Higher Education.

Her work has been recognised with numbers awards and prizes, including Queens Nurse status and Fellowship of the Queens Nursing Institute to those who have shown leadership in community nursing. In 2014, she was named as one of the top 50 leaders in the UK by The Health Services Journal in three separate categories: Inspirational Women in Healthcare, BME Pioneers and Clinical Leader awards.

Professor Serrant has an extensive experience in national and international health policy development with particular specialist input on racial and ethnic inequalities and cultural safety.

In 2010, she was appointed to the UK Prime Minister’s commission for the review of Nursing and Midwifery by the Department of Health. As a member of the Independent Advisory Group to the UK government on Black and minority ethnic issues, she was a key influencer in the development of the first national strategy for sexual health and HIV for England 2001. In 2015, she lead the work at NHS England, Nursing Directorate as Head of Evidence and Strategy, evaluating the three year national nursing strategy and informing development of the new national approach to work for nurses midwives and care staff in England which was launched in April 2016.

She is visiting professor at The University of the West Indies, The Faculty of Health Sciences at Dominica State College and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil and the Warsaw Medical University, Poland.

She holds an Honorary Doctorate in Education from the University of Abertay, Dundee, Scotland. She has also served as a Non-executive Director at Heart of England Foundation Trust and Skills for Health Academy, England.

Follow Professor Laura Serrant on Twitter – @lauraserrant


  1. Dr Lola Oni OBE says:

    This is an absolutely wonderful, comprehensive and empowering history of BME nurses and midwives contribution to the NHS. We applaud these pioneers on the shoulders of whom we who are currently in practice continue to climb and rise. I hope we will continue to do the NHS proud by giving not only of our best but of our humanity and spirituality. We hope we will also leave a lasting legacy which will enable those coming behind us to also get on the ladder of a successful career and be enabled to climb even higher than we have. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS let all of us make a pledge to help, support and sustain at least one junior person to reach and their full potential and excel in this wonderful career. Happy 70th Anniversary.

  2. Tom Sandford says:

    Great blog Jane and Laura – thank you.
    Warmest regards

    • Vicky Williams says:

      This is an excellent blog, write with love. May God bless the writer and her team. Great thanks for the NHS and all the doctors and nurses black or white.