Skellern biography bEssay

Eileen Skellern - A Biographical essay by David Russell (retired Director of Nursing - Bethlem & Maudsley Hospitals).


Eileen Skellern was one of the great innovators in mental health nursing and made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of this field. She played a leading role in developing the knowledge, skills and professional contribution of nurses.  Flora Eileen Skellern was born on 14th June 1923, the eldest of three sisters. At the age of eighteen she went to Leeds to undertake general nurse training at the General Infirmary.  On qualifying, she worked briefly as a Staff Nurse in the operating theatres.  Later she obtained the post of Sister on a medical ward in the same hospital, where she worked for two years. Interestingly, in addition to the medical beds her ward also had beds for psychiatric patients. Perhaps it was this that stimulated her to move to the Cassel Hospital at Richmond, Surrey where she studied for the Certificate for Nervous Disorders.  Once completed, in 1950, she gained a sisters post at that hospital. The Cassel, under the direction of Dr Tom Maine, pioneered psychotherapeutic and psycho social treatment of patients with neurotic illnesses.  In 1952 Eileen gained an award which was to produce perhaps the most significant work of her career in nursing. A scholarship from Boots, the manufacturing chemists, was awarded to undertake research into ward administration and instruction. This work she carried out on behalf of the Ward Sister's section of the Royal Collage of Nursing. The following year she pursued her research, visiting twenty-three hospitals and five factories throughout the country.


By this time, Eileen had left the Cassel Hospital and moved to the Belmont Hospital at Surrey.  There she worked as Sister-in Charge of the Social Rehabilitation Unit of 100 beds. At the same time she collaborated with a team of anthropologists and social scientists studying the Unit. This was a particularly active period when she worked with Dr Maxwell Jones and others in pioneering models of social rehabilitation by group methods.  This work later became well-known as the model for therapeutic communities at the Henderson Hospital. She also published papers in The Lancet, the Nursing Times and the Nursing Mirror.  In 1957 when she was 34, she embarked on a tutor's course at the Royal College of Nursing. After two years she pined the Sister Tutor's Diploma, and took a post as Sister Tutor at St Bartholomew's Hospital. She also lectured on psychological topics to nurses at St Thomas's Hospital. This move away from mental health was short lived.  In 1961 she achieved an appointment to the Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Maudsley Hospital which was to occupy the rest of her working life and to be the crown of her career.  The post was that of Superintendent of Nursing, Eileen was allowed to spend two years at the Cheadle Royal Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Cheshire, undertaking further studies. She qualified as a Registered Mental Nurse and returned to preside over the development of nursing services and nursing education at the Bethlem & Maudsley.


She continued to write and began undertaking more lectures and teaching. From 1969 to 1974 she gave large numbers of talks and lectures on nursing. the introduction of change and on stress. Committee work inside and outside the hospital (for example, at the King's Fund) became an important part of her life. She was the first ever nurse to become an Associate of what is now the Royal College of Psychiatrists.  One project of particular note was her participation in the 1969 national working party, chaired by Richard Crossman, the then Secretary of State, to review policy on mental subnormality following revelations of malpractice and the enquiry at Ely Hospital Cardiff.  The work involved her with persons such as Professor Brian Able Smith, Baroness Serota and other major figures. Eileen took this work very seriously, and devoted much time to it.  Unfortunately, before it could be completed, the Government fell and brought the work to a premature end.


However, some results were eventually recognised and included in the White Paper of 1972, Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped".  In 1972 she was awarded the OBE.  Unfortunately Eileen did not remain in good health. As early as the statics she had problems with her back necessitating weeks away from work.  In spite of this she continued to work phenomenally hard when well, waking early and working at home in her hospital house in Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham then coming to work at about 7.30 am, usually staying for eleven to twelve hours.  There was not much time left for socialising, although she always enjoyed meeting people and was vivacious and amusing.  Constantly alert to new developments in treatment Eileen Skellern encouraged nurses to acquire specialist skills. She pioneered the role of nurses in behaviour psychotherapy and in 1973 with Professor Isaac Marks established the first course for nurses in adult behaviour psychotherapy.


The 1970s saw a long decline in Eileen's health when she developed cancer which spread throughout her body. There were intermissions during which she struggled to continue to develop the work of the Bethlem & Maudsley although her outside work declined.  She was frequently in Hospital at King's College, London, undergoing surgery and radiotherapy and then in St Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham.  During these times she counselled other sufferers with cancer and showed great fortitude.  Her last public appearance was at the hospital Founder's Day Service in the autumn of 1979.  At the beginning of l980, taking advantage of a re-mission she went to stay with her parents and sister in Winchester.  It was there she received the news she had been made a Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing.  On the 29th July she died.  Following her funeral at Winchester Cathedral, she was buried in a Winchester cemetery.

Her very last piece of work had been planning the First International Psychiatric Nursing Congress to be held in 1980. This took place in London, two months after her death.  The address of welcome she had prepared was given to the delegates.  A plaque in the chapel at Bethlem Royal Hospital and a portrait in the board room at Maudsley serve to remember her career within the hospital.  The Eileen Skellern Memorial Lecture on psychiatric nursing serves to remember her wider career.