When Mary Campbell started her career, in September 1948, she didn’t realise she had become a little part of history.

The 87 year old, from Wolvercote, was starting out as a trainee nurse in Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary - just a few weeks after the birth of the NHS.

18 year old Mary had no idea that she had joined the ranks of a national institution that would go on to become one of the world’s biggest employers - she was more focused on keeping on the right side of the rather stern matrons.

Mary recalls: ‘I didn’t realise what a big thing the new National Health Service was at the time, I just wanted to be a nurse and was excited to be starting my career in Oxford. I was aware the NHS was different though and remember in the past my father putting money aside every month to pay our doctors’ fees.’

As a child Mary had been very poorly with appendicitis and spent two weeks in hospital.

She says: ‘Looking back I’m not sure how my parents paid for it all, it must have been a real worry. I was eight years old and there was no room on the children’s ward where I lived in Croydon, so I was on a ward with very ill adults. It was so different to the children’s hospitals today - I could only have visitors twice a week and I was desperately homesick and in a lot of pain. It was a very frightening time to be honest.’

Mary wanted to be a nurse from a young age – that or maybe go on the stage – and she started her training at the Radcliffe Infirmary aged 18.

‘Coming from South London, Oxford seemed a long way away, but I soon made it my home. I lived in nurses accommodation huts in the Churchill, left over from World War Two, and later at the Manor House where the John Radcliffe Hospital is now.’

‘It was very strict. You had to be in by 10pm or there was serious trouble. Some rebels that did naughty things – but I was a good girl. The most trouble I got into was for wearing my engagement ring – the night Sister made my life hell!’

She added: 'If we wanted to go to the dance we had to tell matron who we were taking - Matron Preddy, she was very strict but she was a good soul.'

Early in her career Mary contracted TB from a child she was looking after – and she had to spend two months in an oxygen tent in the Slade Hospital, in Cowley, but the experience didn’t put her off nursing.

She worked at the Churchill and the Radcliffe and later, after getting married, went on to work at the Cowley Road Hospital, where she was a Sister in Outpatients and Theatres, before moving on to district nursing.

Mary then became a college nurse for 25 years Corpus Christi, and Oriel College, looking after students and staff, before retiring 18 years ago.

‘I do have so many happy memories. We worked incredibly hard and very long hours, and had time to really get to know our patients.  I think today’s NHS is so much busier than my day. But staff are still striving to do their very best for their patients.’

She added: 'I do have many happy memories. The NHS enabled me to have a happy and fulfilling career. I look back on it with pride and gratitude and always thankful that the NHS I the times I’ve needed it has been there. It’s a super organisation.'

Mary joined us at one of our many cake cutting ceremonies across all our hospitals, celebrating the special birthday. Members of the Oxfordshire NHS Retirement Fellowship and Radcliffe Guild of Nurses were joined by hundreds of current NHS staff at events at the John Radcliffe, Horton General, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and Churchill Hospital.

Cakes at each site were cut by some of the longest and newest serving staff, and spontaneous singing of happy birthday took place.

Mary said: ‘I’m still very proud of the fact I was a nurse so it’s been lovely to be a part of the celebrations of the NHS, I’ve really enjoyed it all.’

If you are inspired by Mary's story, and would like to help make a difference for patients across our hospitals, do get in touch. 

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