Movie & TV Nurses

Jennifer Worth (1935-2011) and “Call the Midwife”

Her experience in ‘50s and ‘60s London became a bestselling memoir and popular BBC TV series

On the left is Jennifer Worth in a nurse's uniform and hat looking up, on the right is a nurse holding a baby in Call the Midwife

A throwaway line in a 1998 article in the Midwives Journal, suggesting that someone ought to do for midwives what James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small had done for veterinarians, inspired Jennifer Worth to memorialize her years as a nurse midwife in a trilogy of bestselling books, creating a lasting and entertaining record of a time and place that no longer exist.

The East End

Born to a middle-class English family before World War II, Worth dropped out of school at age 14, working as a secretary and wandering around Europe before enrolling in the nurse training program at Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital in the mid-50s.

In 1957, Worth became a nurse midwife in the Poplar section of London’s poverty-stricken East End. As she later described in her book Shadows of the Workhouse, poor women of the time usually gave birth at home and having 10 or more children “was quite common.”

The role of the midwife in that world was a relatively new one. “[E]ven as little as twenty or thirty years previously, women were still delivering each other’s babies as they had done in earlier centuries,” Worth explained, “but by the 1950s, with the advent of the National Health Service, all pregnancies and births were attended by trained midwives.”

In Poplar, Worth worked for and with Anglican nuns and was inspired by their selfless service. The sisters “started their work at a time when there was virtually no medical help for the poorest of the poor, and a woman and her baby survived or died unattended,” she later wrote. Their example led Worth to develop a lifelong dedication to Christianity. Many of her Anglican colleagues remained her friends for the rest of her life.

Nursing Education

She was also moved by the neighborhood’s people, who were struggling against devastating poverty and terrible conditions. Many of her patients became heroes to her.

Midwifery was not the only nursing role Worth held. After her days in the East End, she worked for several other hospitals and finally with dying patients at the Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead.

Later Career

Despite her attraction to the work, Worth did not remain in nursing her entire life. She gave it up in 1973 to pursue a successful career as a singer and pianist, which took her all over the U.K. and Europe as a solo performer and choir member. She also taught music.

When that career no longer brought satisfaction, she turned to writing, documenting her experience with asthma and eczema in a 1997 book titled Eczema and Food Allergy: The Hidden Cause?

In the late ‘90s, she began work on Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, first published in 2002. The book’s portrait of the courage and endurance of ordinary people in times of hardship soon became a popular success.

RN Career Events

Worth decided that she loved writing about the people among whom she had once worked and lived.

“They all came back to me so vividly. I could hear the Cockney voices,” she said. She went on to write a second memoir, Shadows of the Workhouse, published in 2005. A third volume, Farewell to the East End, followed in 2009.

Worth’s final book, In the Midst of Life, first published in 2010, was based in part on her experiences at Marie Curie Hospital and her strong feelings about palliative care and the treatment of terminal patients.

Worth’s husband Philip was the brother of one of the women whose babies Worth once delivered. The couple had two daughters. All helped Worth with her midwifery books and later consulted on “Call the Midwife,” the 2012 BBC television series based on those books.

Describing their satisfaction with the way the show depicts a woman they loved, Worth’s husband and daughters have expressed their sadness that she did not live long enough to see the show herself. As for her original goal of calling positive attention to midwifery, Worth succeeded far beyond her dreams.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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