Black History Month: Celebrating the NHS's first black nurse

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Kofoworola Abeni Pratt

Guy’s and St Thomas’ is shining a light on the first black nurse to work in the NHS, Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, as part of Black History Month.

Her story is not well known but is now inspiring nurses to break boundaries in their own careers.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1915, Kofoworola came to the UK in 1946 and was the first black student to attend the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Despite being married with a son, she qualified as a state registered nurse in 1950, at a time when it was unusual for a married woman to take up nursing.

Kofoworola became a staff nurse at Evelina London Children’s Hospital in 1952, then a charge nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital the following year.

She returned to Nigeria in 1954 and was initially denied a post as a ward sister because the position was only open for British expatriates. Within 10 years, Kofoworola was appointed matron of the University College Hospital in Ibadan – the first Nigerian to hold the position.

Following the country’s independence, Kofoworola set up a nursing school at the University of Ibadan in 1965, which was the basis for modern nursing practices in the country.

Among her many posts, she became Chief Nursing Officer for Nigeria and was the first black woman to be named Vice-President of the International Council of Nurses.

In 1973, Kofoworola was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international merit for a nurse, and was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Nursing in 1979.

Alice Denga, Head of Nursing for Women’s and Gynaecology at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “I am in awe of Kofoworola and how she managed to break barriers throughout her career. Her determined spirit shows that you should never allow anything to distract you from pursuing a dream. 

“She has inspired me to overcome challenges in my career, to persevere and to never give up. The passion that I have for providing the best possible care for patients through developing cohesive teams has always been my focus and I hope to continue for many years to come.”

As part of its celebrations for Black History Month, Guy’s and St Thomas’ recently invited staff to join a ‘career conversation’ webinar with senior black nurses and midwives. They shared the challenges they’ve overcome, pivotal moments in their careers and hints and tips for professional development.

Kendra Schneller, a nurse practitioner in the Health Inclusion Team at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “Kofoworola has been an inspiration to me because despite the challenges she faced working as the first black nurse in the NHS and in her native Nigeria, she did not let that hold her back from pursuing her goals.

"Her experiences have paved the way for black nurses like myself to be determined to achieve and continue the belief that we are the change makers and the effort must continue.”

Both Alice and Kendra were part of the webinar panel and shared their experiences. This year they became ‘Nightingale Nurses’, having received the Nightingale Nurse and Midwife Award.

The award is unique to Guy’s and St Thomas’ and is given to nurses and midwives who provide evidence from their managers, peers and patients of their outstanding practice and how they daily demonstrate the Trust’s values. They also have to complete a programme of academic work accredited by King’s College London.

The Nightingale Nurse and Midwife Award is part of the Nightingale Academy at Guy’s and St Thomas’, which launched in 2017 to transform education, innovation and research in nursing and midwifery.

The Nightingale Academy is committed to supporting the development of nurses and midwives who identify as being from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. Inspired by Kofoworola’s legacy and leadership, the Academy is developing initiatives to close the gap at a senior level assuring equality for all.

Last updated: March 2022

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