Opinion

Tribute to Betsi Cadwaladr

20 November 2020

A look at the life and legacy of the brave, determined and pioneering Welsh nurse who cared for soldiers in the Crimean War.

This is the last in our ‘Tribute to…’ series for 2020 in which we’ve looked at four nursing greats to honour the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and all healthcare professionals who have proven heroes of modern times.

This issue, we explore the life and work of the remarkable Betsi (Elizabeth) Cadwaladr.

She’s often been referred to as the ‘Welsh Florence Nightingale’ or the ‘forgotten nurse’. But such terms do her a disservice. For Betsi was a brave nurse in the Crimean War in her own right, and has been described as extremely hard-working, caring, independent and determined.

Hard-working

Betsi may have worked alongside Florence, but she had a very different background, for which she was ultimately discriminated against.

Betsi was one of 16 children from a working-class family near Bala in north Wales. She left home a mere teenager and spent much time travelling, working in various domestic service posts, including as a nanny on board a ship.

She trained as a nurse later in life back in the UK. After hearing about the conditions facing wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War, Betsi joined the military nursing service around the age of 65.

She was posted to a hospital in Scutari, Turkey, run by Florence. It’s here that she is said to have been frustrated by the bureaucracy she saw, as her focus was on helping injured soldiers, not regulations that acted as obstacles to their care.

The largest health board in Wales is proudly named after Betsi Cadwaladr in recognition of all her work

So she moved nearer to the frontline and had disagreements with Florence as a result, although it’s believed that Florence was impressed in the end by Betsi’s tireless work looking after the wounded and also in improving conditions.

In 1855, Betsi was forced home due to ill health and died five years later in London. She was buried in a pauper’s grave.

An autobiography was written about her life, but by then she was almost a forgotten heroine.

Recognition at last

The largest health board in Wales, providing primary, community, mental health and acute hospital services for more than 600,000 people across north Wales is proudly named after Betsi Cadwaladr, in recognition of all her work.

And in August 2012, Betsi’s life and work was honoured and celebrated with a memorial stone and bench in London.

Then in 2016, an S4C (Welsh TV channel) documentary was broadcast that looked at the relationship between Betsi and Florence. It also revealed that some historians believe Betsi has not been given the credit she deserves for her role during the Crimean War. 

Image credit | Alamy

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