Peter Harley: a beacon of humility and professionalism.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Professionalization (Research)
Nurses (Practice)
Nurses (Training)
Author: Harding, Thomas
Pub Date: 04/01/2011
Publication: Name: Nursing Praxis in New Zealand Publisher: Nursing Praxis in New Zealand Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health care industry Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Nursing Praxis in New Zealand ISSN: 0112-7438
Issue: Date: April, 2011 Source Volume: 27 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research; 200 Management dynamics; 280 Personnel administration
Product: Product Code: 8043100 Nurses NAICS Code: 621399 Offices of All Other Miscellaneous Health Practitioners
Geographic: Geographic Scope: New Zealand Geographic Code: 8NEWZ New Zealand
Accession Number: 276900997
Full Text: The history of nursing has largely been associated with women. Hence it is not surprising that stories of men as nurses have not been widely documented. Some years ago I began to explore men's contribution to nursing and was fortunate to be introduced to Peter Harley.

On January 31, 1961, as one of the 10 men in the North Canterbury Hospital Board's inaugural three-year course leading to registration for men, Peter Harley became a pioneer. Although following the 1939 amendment to the Nurses and Midwives Act there was a Male Nurses Register, until 1958 when the first three-year course became available, programmes for men were only of two-year duration--comprising 18 months geriatric and 6 months acute nursing.

The following account can only briefly highlight Peter's very considerable contribution to nursing. The information is based on my conversations with two people: Peter himself, and Susanne Trim, a longstanding colleague of Peter. It was she who introduced us. Having worked with Peter as a student and as an RN colleague in both general and mental health settings she was able to provide an insightful perspective on the man and nurse.

"We were made to feel odd"

According to Peter the Board's decision to provide registered nurse education to men was not universally supported. He heard later that "the Matron-in-Chief, or the Lady Superintendent as she was then called, didn't want it. We were unwanted from day one". The reluctance to encourage more men into the profession extended even to difficulty in recruiting someone to teach this first class of men. Two days before commencement there was still no one. Eventually the tutor of the Registered Nurse Aides transferred to "take the males on".

Peter recalled that the common reaction to men in nursing was one of "suspicion". It was noted there was always emphasis that "you were a male nurse" and underlying this the belief that you were probably homosexual. From day one it was stressed that male nurses would not be nursing women and children, and that they "were not to have grand ideas". It was made clear "If we were lucky enough to complete our training we could never hope to be anything other than staff nurses".

Of that original class only five "survived" to registration. Peter endured, he thought, because he focused on doing "the right thing" and "being a good boy". He avoided getting into trouble with the nursing hierarchy, but recalled others who did not and they departed.

Early career development

In his final months as a student Peter was told that "Casualty Doctor has decided that he might like to try a male nurse in Casualty". He was the first male student to work there. He stayed for two years following registration but, wanting experience in the wards and loving night work, he asked for a position on the night team. A Night Sister was leaving and he was told he could take her place. He wondered if this meant promotion. However he did not voice the question as "you didn't ask those sorts of things and were grateful for what you received". He was about to start when he was called into Second Assistant Matron's office, "Mr. Harley--it was always 'Mr.' in those days--I'm sorry to have to tell you, you will not be able to go onto the night duty job." He was informed that the Lady Superintendent on hearing of the appointment asked, "How can a man possibly do night duty when there were women and children in the hospital?"

He was disappointed. In the mixed wards at Burwood Hospital where he had been based for much of his student days, he had been constantly called upon to help female colleagues with lifting and transferring female patients. It was ingrained in him and other staff to always ensure that he was chaperoned when with a female patient. He believed that many female nurses did not perceive their male colleagues as their equals, but they were pleased when a male was on duty, "Oh, great, help with the lifting." To him it seemed that they were appreciated only for their strength and ability to deal with the 'difficult' male issues, such as catheterisation.

Exceeding expectations

He remained in Casualty for a further short time until he travelled to the UK where he studied neurosurgery in Dundee, followed by the spinal course at Stoke-Mandeville Hospital. Soon after his return to Christchurch Hospital, in 1968, he was appointed Charge Nurse of East Side Outpatients and a year later, on the retirement of the Sister-in-Charge, West Side, he was asked to amalgamate the two wings. Peter was "chuffed" at being asked to be a Charge Nurse as he "never had any expectation from day one. I accepted that I would always be a Staff Nurse, that's me". He enjoyed the challenge of bringing together the two separate wings, and introducing by way of posters and booklets, innovations--such as a public health focus--into the huge, bare waiting room.

His next role was as Afternoon Supervisor, followed by that of Senior Supervisor, Night Duty. Susanne Trim recalled one of her first experiences with Peter as a second year student nurse in the 1970s:

Apart from a break in 1975-76 when he undertook a 40-week Psychiatric Nursing Bridging Programme offered at Sunnyside Hospital, Peter continued in the Supervisor role for nine years. His motivation for completing this latter course stemmed from an earlier sense of inadequacy when in general nursing he had needed to deal with people who on admission also had mental health issues.

He returned to the role of Night Supervisor at Christchurch Hospital for a further three years. There he brought new knowledge and expertise from mental health and used his position as a Senior Supervisor to have the Board Psychiatrist review the management of patients who at admission also had mental health issues. As well, he established a 'time out' room where patients could be secluded, if necessary, for their safety.

Stepping down

In 1979, Peter moved out of general nursing altogether to work in mental health. After 18 years and what, in terms of hierarchical progression, would be viewed as a successful career he embraced a substantial reduction in salary and authority to be a staff nurse in mental health. For the next 24 years he worked as a Staff Nurse at Sunnyside Hospital, declining the senior roles which were offered. In 2002, as he contemplated retirement, the Manager of the Christchurch City Mission asked him to develop a role as a Community Mental Health Nurse and he spent the final four years of his career working in the community until retirement in 2007.

Peter Harley's career has been one characterised by humility, kindness and commitment to the highest of standards in all he did. In attempting to sum up the influence this man has had on colleagues, patients and the profession nothing could encapsulate it better than these words from Susanne Trim:


Peter continues to live in Christchurch where he maintains contact with nursing friends and colleagues.

Associate Professor Thomas Harding RN PhD

Deputy Head, School of Nursing (NSW & ACT)

Australian Catholic University, North Sydney, Australia
I was put on night shift as the sole nurse looking
   after a ward for infectious patients, and staff
   members. This was terrifying I had only one
   year's training and had never worked here
   before. The Sister had the reputation of being
   a tyrant. Supervisors were beings apart and
   for we mere students certainly not people we
   would approach directly! Peter was the night
   supervisor. It did not take me more than a couple
   of nights to learn that not only could I call on
   this esteemed being, but he would arrive, I could
   explain the problem without being made to feel
   incompetent, and he would help! Supervisors
   really did know what they were doing, they were
   good coaches, they did support me and they were
   even human! What a revelation!

After a decade of general nursing I became
   a mature student psychiatric nurse and I saw
   the very best and the worst of nursing in my
   experience. In one placement, I came across
   Peter again. He was working as a clinical
   psychiatric nurse. The unit leadership was poor
   in my view and it was far from a positive and
   therapeutic environment. As a beacon, Peter
   stood out as a true professional amongst others
   who failed to reach the profession's standards as
   I understood them. I became very distressed at
   what I saw and experienced. After two weeks I
   sought Peter out to discuss the situation. I asked
   him how he could continue to practise in such an
   unprofessional place. His response--"if I am not
   here for the patients who will be, Susanne?" He
   was right. He was the person patients turned to.
   He was the person they trusted to treat them
   with fairness and professionalism.
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