Former hospital matron who ice skated with John F Kennedy and nursed Winston Churchill dies aged 96
PUBLISHED: 13:44 21 July 2018 | UPDATED: 20:34 22 July 2018
A former matron of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital who once went ice skating with John F Kennedy and nursed Winston Churchill back to health has died age 96.
Priscilla Cooper died on June 14, 2018, at Bay Tree House care home, on Unthank Road, Norwich, after a long illness.
Born on June 30, 1921 in Eltham, South London, Miss Cooper was an only child and never married.
But it was said she won a host of friends by combining “professionalism and integrity with infectious vitality and great style”.
She was educated at the Convent of St Clothilde, Lechlade, in Gloucestershire, and trained as a secretary at the Mayfair Secretarial College in London.
And in 1939, the year she came out into society, she went ice skating with the young John F Kennedy.
Of the encounter she said: “He was very good looking and very dashing. I think we made rather a handsome couple.”
Miss Cooper’s nursing career began with Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nursing as a member of the British Red Cross during the Second World War.
And in 1944, at Middlesex Hospital, she went through her general training before qualifying as a midwife at Warnford General Hospital in Leamington Spa.
Her first staff nurse appointment was on a surgical ward at Middlesex Hospital, and over the following three years she became night sister and then a relief sister.
After taking part in a three-month course she was then appointed as ward sister in October 1953.
She held this role for three years before moving to become administrative sister in the matron’s office at Middlesex and by September 1958 became assistant matron at the hospital.
In the summer of 1962, while still assistant matron, Miss Cooper was summoned urgently from the hairdresser to lead the team charged with nursing Winston Churchill back to health after he had broken his thigh on holiday in the south of France, an assignment which lasted two months.
After this, she went to the United States of America to study hospital and training school administration, an interest which finally brought her to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in 1964.
Miss Cooper followed matron Jean Watson who had served the Norwich hospitals through a revolution in medical treatment and thinking, and Miss Cooper carried this on in the approaches to nursing and the care given.
She was described in this newspaper in 1966 as a “matron who looks to the future”.
An article on Miss Cooper said she “does not confirm to the typical idea of the matron of a large hospital. She is friendly rather than formidable, fashionably dressed and willing to answer questions”.
When asked by the reporter whether her neat grey Worstead dress and small lace cap was the uniform of the modern matron, Miss Cooper said: “It is my own idea. I have never been one for stiff collars and cuffs for nurses and out of date uniforms. I would like to modernise the uniforms throughout the hospital.”
In July 1968 Miss Cooper spoke out against a recommendation to lower the age of entry for training nurses from 18 to 17. She said it would turn British nurses into the “Cinderella of the world’s nurses” and dubbed the proposals one of the “most ominous, disturbing, and insulting things” that had happened to the profession.
In a tribute given at Miss Cooper’s funeral held at Norwich Cathedral on July 9, long-standing friend Greg Chapman said she was “quite a character”.
He said: “In the late 1960s Priscilla was chosen to take part in a high-powered nursing conference in the Netherlands, the culmination of which was to be a visit by Queen Juliana. Priscilla was chosen to escort her - could there really have been any other choice? - and was asked by one of her British colleagues after the Queen had left, ‘was it awfully intimidating?’.
“Without a trace of irony, Priscilla told me that she had replied, ‘No, the Queen was very sweet, asked the most intelligent questions, and of course I had put her at her ease straight away. I don’t think she felt intimidated in the slightest’.”
At the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital she introduced regular ward sister meetings in the board room, which she would begin by saying “good morning sisters, lift up your hearts”.
She also championed the building of a residential blocks of flats and bed sits where nurses could be free of hospital rules and regulations.
When she left Norwich after five years, to become chief nursing officer at United Oxford Hospitals, she said her aim had been to move away from the “convent image” of hospital life.
She said: “I wanted to show people that it’s possible to be a senior nurse and at the same time a responsible member of the community with a reasonable life outside the hospital. East Anglians make very good friends and are wonderful people to work with. They have great integrity and a grand feeling for hospitals in Norwich.”
On her departure she was presented with a cheque, charts, and a print from her students.
She remained in Oxford until her retirement in 1978 when she returned to Norwich for almost the last 40 years of her life.
Miss Cooper’s cousin, Mary Palmer, said: “Her late mother, May, suffered from dementia and Priscilla always prayed that she would not suffer the same fate. Sadly, she did, spending the last seven years of her life in a residential home, Bay Tree House, where she received outstanding care and kindness.”
Mr Chapman said: “Nature had never intended Priscilla to be a shrinking violet, and in her professional life she employed her considerable charm, and huge sense of style, coupled with a formidable personality - and a gloriously rich, unmistakable voice - to make her mark. All of this was underpinned by a deep religious faith.
“I am quite sure that when we meet again, I shall be regaled with tales of recalcitrant cherubs, and totally inefficient celestial harpists having to be chivvied along – “Do you see, Greg, they just weren’t up to snuff, or cutting the mustard”. Well, Priscilla was always up to snuff, and always did cut the mustard.”
He added he was “eternally grateful” for their 20-year friendship.
Mrs Palmer said: “Her private passions were her Norwich Terriers, chocolate, and her garden. As Greg said, all this was underpinned by an unwavering Christian faith - a regular worshipper at the cathedral, she was always in no doubt that she would “go to the angels”. We all hoped that they were ready for her.”