Murder, Mental Illness, and the Question of Nursing "Character" in Early Twentieth Century England

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In May 1918, the Sydenham Infant Welfare Centre in south-east London hired a new senior nurse, Eva Grace Thompson. With fourteen years’ experience in the profession and a certificate from University College Hospital, and having worked in both children’s and adult hospitals, she seemed ideal for this demanding post at a residential paediatric institution. Within a few days of her arrival, however, a disturbing pattern of patient injuries appeared. Initially, these were assumed to be accidents. When one of the children died, however, a post-mortem revealed that the injuries had been caused deliberately. Investigations revealed not only that Thompson had been accused previously of harming child patients, but that she had suffered from drug addiction for several years. Convicted of murder at the Old Bailey, Thompson was found ‘guilty but insane’ and her crimes were unanimously blamed on drugs. Surprisingly, Thompson then essentially vanished from public memory, despite the interwar anxieties surrounding both the professionalization of nursing and a supposed rise in drug addiction and related crimes. As I demonstrate here, a crucial reason for this ‘deliberate forgetting’ of the Thompson case was the near-obsession with ‘character’ in nursing during the early twentieth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-200
Number of pages18
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Sept 2015


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