Eileen Skellern was born in 1923 in Stone, Staffordshire, the eldest of three sisters. She went into nursing at the age of eighteen at Leeds General Infirmary, and on completion of her training worked there for two years before moving to the Cassel Hospital at Richmond, Surrey, a pioneering psychiatric institution for those with neurotic illnesses run by Dr Tom Maine.
At Cassel she gained her Certificate for Nervous Disorders, and in 1950 became a Sister on the permanent staff. In 1952 she gained a scholarship from Boots, the manufacturing chemist (and now well-known high street chain) to undertake research into ward administration and research. In 1953 she spent three months visiting 23 Hospitals and 5 factories to research what became one of the first published pieces of nursing research in the UK, ‘The Role of the Ward Sister’.
Between 1953 and 1957 she moved to the Belmont Hospital in Sutton, becoming Sister-in-Charge of the Social Rehabilitation Unit of 100 beds. She also undertook a period of ground-breaking research with Dr Maxwell Jones and others on methods of social rehabilitation through group methods, publishing papers in The Lancet, The Nursing Times and the Nursing Mirror. Essentially she and Jones established the idea that interactions with nurses could prepare patients for their return to the community, an idea that became embedded in professional best practice.
In the late 1950s Eileen Skellern moved into teaching and lecturing, becoming a Sister Tutor at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and lecturing on psychological topics to nurses at St Thomas’s, before completing her RMN training at Cheadle Royal in Manchester.
In 1963 she was appointed as Superintendent of Nursing of what was then the Bethlem Royal Hospital and Maudsley Hospital joint hospital (which has largely gone on to become SLaM today). Here she not only had responsibility for all aspects of nursing across both Hospitals, but she also regularly lectured and taught nurses on various aspects of mental health care- especially using the ideas of ‘therapeutic communities’ her and Jones developed. Her research work moved from collaborative papers to sitting on national working parties, one of which produced the White Paper ‘Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped’ in 1972, and helping to establish the first course for nurses in adult behaviour psychotherapy. She was awarded an OBE in 1972, the photo above is of her collecting it.
In her obituary, David Russell, a close colleague, recalls her rising early, working at home in Beckenham, getting to Bethlem for about 7.30am and then working for ’11 or 12 hours’. In Sketches From Bethlem, Russell (who succeeded her as Chief Nursing Officer) suggests that this extraordinary work ethic was at least in part bought about by her own frustration at being kept away from work by health issues. Back problems repeatedly kept her absent in the 1960s before she discovered that she had cancer in the mid 1970s.
Although treatment caused her to take breaks from the Hospital, and eventually caused her to take early retirement, she kept working on her various projects up to her death on 29th July 1980. A few months before she passed away she was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Nursing, and only a matter of months after her speech of welcome was read out to the attendees at the first International Conference of Psychiatry she had spent two years organising.
Russell recalls her as being a warm outgoing, articulate person of great charisma whose work moved psychiatric nursing, and nursing as a whole, onto a more academic footing, expanding the role of nurse in treatment and paving the way for the modern profession as we know it today.
She is remembered by Eileen Skellern Ward at the Maudsley, a plaque in the chapel at Bethlem and by the Skellern Lecture, which annually celebrates advances in the field of Mental Health and Mental Health Nursing.