This summer the NHS will celebrate its 70th anniversary and today we join in paying tribute to someone who has been part of it from the very beginning.
Established by Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government and overseen by its Health Minister Aneurin Bevan, the NHS began its work on July 5th, 1948. Its three core principles were that it meet the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery, and that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay.
One of the people working in the NHS on its very first day was 17-year-old nurse cadet Ethel Armstrong (pictured), who would go on to devote her life to the service. At the beginning of this year her seven decades of dedication was recognised with the award of an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List. This month it was presented to her by Prince Charles in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
After qualifying as a nurse, Ether went on to work in the NHS in various parts of the country, mainly in roles in the fast-developing field of radiography and radiotherapy. In later years this involved working as a tutor and advisor to the pioneering Breast Screening Service in Liverpool, up to her retirement in 1989. During her career, she also earned a Master’s Degree in Clinical Practice in the field of cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
Even after retirement, Ethel maintained strong and active links with the NHS. Returning to her home town of Durham, she volunteered for its branch of the NHS Retirement Fellowship and quickly becoming an integral part of it.
She served as the branch’s welfare officer in 1992 before becoming its Chairman in 1994 – a position she still holds. In 2005, she was elected as regional representative for the North East and became part of the fellowship’s National Council. She was elected its Vice-Chairman in 2009 then Chairman in 2011 and President in 2013. Having been involved in the service for so long, she was invited to become the NHS Retirement Fellowship’s first Life Patron in 2015.
Commenting on her MBE, Ethel said: “I am completely bowled over to have been recognised by Her Majesty the Queen for my work for the NHS. I never expected to receive such a prestigious accolade for doing something I love.
“The NHS is part of who I am, and I have been proud and lucky enough to have been there at the start of this wonderful institution. It’s a particular honour to receive this in the year that the NHS turns 70 and I see this as a nod to all the special people I’ve had the privilege of working for over the decades.”
Jane Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer for England, said: “Huge congratulations to Ethel on this well-deserved public recognition of her inspiring career and public service. In the year that the NHS turns 70, it is fitting that we pay tribute and say thank you to the extraordinary people like Ethel who go the extra mile, year in, year out to provide patient care and truly make a difference.”
The NHS Retirement Fellowship is the social, leisure, educational and welfare organisation for current and retired NHS and Social Care staff and their partners. Its chief executive, John Rostill OBE, said of Ethel: “This remarkable lady has worked tirelessly for the benefit of our 10,000 members and has travelled thousands of miles by train each year to enthuse members with her passion, enthusiasm and commitment.
“This 87-year-old lady is unique and has set an example that will be difficult to replicate. I can’t think of anyone more suitable to be honoured, at the beginning of the NHS Retirement Fellowship’s 40th year and the NHS’s 70th birthday.”