Pioneer of the nursing profession
Agnes was born into a wealthy family in Cambridge in 1832, but moved to Fahan, Co Donegal in Ireland while very young. Her father was in the army and the family travelled a great deal as he was posted overseas. Agnes herself was very religious and had a strong sense of responsibility from an early age, always concerned with welfare of others.
In 1853, while on holiday with her family in Europe, Agnes met deaconesses from the Institute of Kaiserwerth, which ran one of the world’s first training schools for nursing. She also spent time at the Institution in Bonn, learning new standards of nursing. Once back in Ireland, she worked at Dublin Hospital, spending her spare time helping the sick and dying homeless in the city.
Passionate about her calling, in 1859 she moved to London where she met Florence Nightingale and Sarah E Wardroper, at that time the senior nurse at St Thomas Hospital. This inspired her to begin formal training as a nurse in 1862 at the Nightingale School at St Thomas’ Hospital. After a year’s study, she took up nursing roles in London, including acting as the Superintendent of the Great Northern Hospital from 1863-4.
Meanwhile in Liverpool, the philanthropist and merchant William Rathbone was keen to improve standards for the poor. In 1865, on the recommendation of Florence Nightingale, Rathbone invited Agnes to take a lead role in his new experiment to introduce trained nurses to the Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary on Brownlow Hill. The law at the time discouraged the poor from entering the workhouses by making conditions inside far worse than for working poor outside. Those currently nursing the sick were female paupers who hadn’t had any nursing training. Rathbone believed so strongly in the measure that he personally funded the first three years of the experiment, rather than the money coming out of local taxes. Agnes was the first nurse countrywide to be appointed as the superintendent of such an institution.
Agnes threw herself into the role with a passion, tackling the typhus and cholera raging through the patients by cleaning the wards, destroying filthy bed linen and further improving conditions. She headed up a team of 12 nurses and 65 assistant nurses. As a direct result of her actions, the mortality rate dropped and health and living conditions in the workhouse improved.
However, her dedication to making the poor’s lives better took its toll on Agnes and she succumbed to typhus fever herself, dying on 19 Feb 1868 at the age of just 35.
Although she was buried in St Mura’s Graveyard, Fahan, Ireland, Liverpool recognises her huge contribution to the welfare of the city with memorials including a window in the Lady Chapel of the Anglican Cathedral and a statue in the Cathedral Oratory.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.