In the footsteps of nursing heroines

SMAC nurses - Spain 1937
The three nurses shortly after their arrival in Spain, from left: René Shadbolt, Isobel Dodds and Millicent Sharples.

EIGHTY YEARS ago this month, another group of New Zealand nurses was arriving in Barcelona – part of New Zealand’s Spanish Medical Aid Committee.

The group was led by René Shadbolt, head sister of Auckland Hospital’s casualty ward (and the aunt of Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt and author Maurice Shadbolt, and later the Matron of Rawene Hospital), accompanied by Isobel Dodds, a staff nurse from Wellington Hospital and Millicent Sharples a nurse aide from Levin (see photo above).

Shadbolt, Dodds and Sharples were among 40,000 international volunteers who travelled to Spain between 1936 and 1939. They were responding to a humanitarian crisis and a threat to democracy. In mid-1936, a Fascist army backed by Adolf Hitler had risen up to overthrow Spain’s elected socialist government.

Joining others in Spain The trio joined other New Zealanders already working there. There was surgeon Doug Jolly, who had worked as a resident doctor in Dunedin and Wellington Hospital, and Auckland nurse Una Wilson. Dorothy Morris, a Christchurch nurse, had deployed to Spain with the British Universities Ambulance Unit at the start of 1937 and was based in a Quaker-run children’s hospital south of Barcelona.

Their stories are told in two recent books, Kiwi Compañeros – New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War and Petals and Bullets – Dorothy Morris, New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War, which was reviewed in the August 2015 issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand.

I spent the afternoon before the opening of the ICN’s CNR contemplating these nurses’ time in Catalonia, the semi-autonomous province around Barcelona.

At the Museum of Catalan History, I met an historian and we talked over Kiwi Compañeros. He knew of some of the people mentioned in the book, but could shed no more light on our nurses.

In the museum’s exhibition hall, I watched the newsreel footage of Hitler’s air force perfecting its aerial bombardment of civilian areas – the same techniques which, three years later, would be used on London during the Blitz. I thought of the injured and traumatised children who were evacuated from Barcelona and into Dorothy Morris’ care.

History tells us that in 1939 Hitler triumphed, as other countries (apart from Mexico and the Soviet Union) refused the appeals for help from the Spanish government.

As the danger of far-right extremism grows once more, our Kiwi nurses deserve to be remembered.

While walking the same Barcelona streets they described in their letters home, I reflected on their courage and commitment. If allied governments had shown the same spirit during 1936-39 as our nursing heroines, they might have checked the rise of fascism in Europe, and its incomparable horror could have been prevented. •

Report by NZNO president Grant Brookes

Related coverage:

‘Facing up to global challenges’

‘Boosting Pacific representation at ICN’

First published in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, July 2017. Reposted with permission. 

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