Doreen Norton - Geriatric Nurse (1922 - 2007)

Norton, Doreen (1922–2007), geriatric nurse, was born on 1 May 1922 at 1 Burr Villas, Hedge Place Road, Stone, Dartford, Kent, the elder daughter of Henry Thomas Norton, an engineer's fitter at an iron foundry, later a refrigeration engineer, and his wife, Winifred Clara, née Skinner, a psychiatric nurse. She left school at the age of fourteen to work in her father's business for the next six years. However, following her admission to a local isolation hospital with scarlet fever at the age of eleven, she had always determined to be a nurse.

Norton began her basic nurse training in 1942 at St Charles Hospital, London, an old workhouse infirmary. When this was completed she was sent with colleagues to the emergency hospital in Horton, Epsom, where she was thrown in at the deep end, making the whole thing ‘a nightmare’ (BL NSA, C512/38). After eight months she resigned and returned to St Charles Hospital, where she worked in an old people's ward sited in the basement of the hospital, commonly known as a ‘punishment’ ward: whether this was for the patients or nurses was not clear. She loved this work and was much happier. She qualified with distinction as a state registered nurse in 1946.

For the next ten years Norton extended her nursing experience. Initially she worked on tuberculosis wards. Unfortunately she contracted the disease, which required a year's hospital treatment in Sidcup. There she was visited by Monica Dickens and remained in contact with her for many years. In 1951 she obtained her tuberculosis nursing certificate with honours and a Hospital Saving Association scholarship, and was appointed sister in the new thoracic surgical unit at Colindale Hospital. Later she broadened her geriatric nursing experience by working on the geriatric wards at St Charles Hospital, during which time she visited the pioneering geriatrician Marjory Warren, and also by working in the geriatric outpatient department at Edgware General Hospital. In 1952 she left the NHS for a year to join her sister, Joan, to look after their mother who was severely disabled with painful rheumatoid arthritis. She adapted the house, applied the lessons she had learned during her nursing career, and persuaded surgeons to straighten her mother's knees, with the result that she had a much more active life. Norton described these successes in a well-received book, Looking After Old People at Home (1957), which went into three editions.

From 1956 Norton worked for two years as a social worker for King Edward's Hospital Fund, assessing elderly people on waiting lists for admission. At this time she met Norman Exton-Smith, who obtained a grant from the National Corporation for the Care of Old People for her and a colleague, Rhoda McLaren, to carry out a two-year study of nursing elderly patients. This seminal work, published in 1962 as An Investigation of Geriatric Nursing Problems in Hospital, highlighted the problem and the correct management of pressure sores, which until then had been treated with soap, methylated spirits, or other supposed ‘remedies’ rather than by regularly moving a patient. The book brought Norton international recognition and firmly established her pressure sore scale as an extremely valuable nursing aid.

Between 1963 and 1966 Norton was initially a nursing research officer for the Royal College of Art's School of Industrial Design, where she influenced the design of the King's Fund adjustable bed, and later a nursing researcher based at Edgware General Hospital. During this time, supported by a Nuffield grant, she assessed practical nursing problems and their solution in long-term (continuing care) patients in 300 hospitals. The report was published in 1966. She then moved to the department of nursing studies at Edinburgh University, where she successfully completed an MSc degree in 1969 on basic nursing equipment. Thereafter, until 1972, she worked for the Scottish health advisory service, and visited every long-stay hospital in Scotland. Between 1973 and 1982, when she retired, she was nursing research liaison officer, later chief scientific adviser for clinical nursing research, for the South-West Thames regional health authority. She started work on a PhD thesis and regretted never completing it. She was elected one of the first fellows of the Royal College of Nursing in 1976 and appointed OBE in 1977.

Within a year of retirement Norton was invited to take the chair of gerontological nursing at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio: this was the world's first such post, which she held until 1984. She helped on the wards, much to the exasperation of the university authorities who told her that she was there to teach and not to be ‘hands on’. Between 2002 and 2004 she received the first lifetime achievement award from the British Journal of Nursing, opened a twenty-four-bed ward at University Hospital, Lewisham, which had been named after her, and was awarded an honorary fellowship by London's South Bank University. She was a founder member of the Royal College of Nursing Research and founder chair of the college's Society of Geriatric Nursing. She advised health authorities and the Disabled Living Foundation, assisted in the planning of two hospitals, and was a member of editorial boards and many national committees. She lectured extensively in the UK and abroad, gave many talks on the BBC, and published books, important reports, and many articles, always acknowledging the considerable assistance she was given by her sister.

Norton was an energetic, attractive lady with a delightful personality. She was passionately devoted to improving the nursing care of elderly patients, especially by using research methods to improve management of pressure sores, develop better ward equipment, and refine nursing procedures. She believed that the story of geriatric nursing was one of ignorance and educational neglect by the nursing profession, and considered that every qualified nurse and nursing tutor should have experience in nursing elderly patients. In retirement she became disheartened, believing that advances in the care of sick elderly people had become as ‘footprints in wet sand’: achievements were lost as if they had never happened. She lived latterly with her sister Joan in Worthing, Sussex, and died at Worthing Hospital on 30 December 2007 from an intracerebral haemorrhage. She never married but was survived by her sister.

Michael Denham
BGS Past President and Historian