JAN / FEB 2013: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
The London Hospital at the turn of the 20th Century was at the frontline of cutting-edge medical equipment and practices, facing the major illnesses of the day and the poverty of the East End.
This is the setting where the television show Casualty 1900s (or London Hospital) takes place, drawing material from hospital files and personal diaries. It’s also in this setting that Doctor Millais Culpin and Nurse Ethel Bennett meet, work together and fall in love, all while striving to save the lives of their patients.
Ethel Bennett is introduced on her first day as a probationer nurse. She is bright, cheerful with a knack for impersonations, and eager to learn. She is assigned to the receiving room to work alongside Millais Culpin, an experienced doctor who grew up in Australia. Millais is grave, thoughtful and intense but shows his care and compassion through his actions. Professionally Millais and Ethel work well as team in the receiving room. Millais develops an interest in Ethel’s aspirations after she confides in him that she wants to be a doctor, something unheard of at the time. She shows promise when they first meet in her ability to learn quickly and handle patients. Millais is more open-minded than his colleagues, believing that treating patients of psychological illnesses is just as important as treating any physical illnesses. He believes Ethel can achieve her dreams. He helps her along the way, teaching her during their shifts in the receiving room.
Despite their different personalities and roles in the hospital, Ethel and Millais share a common trait of wanting to do the right thing for the patients under their care. Millais is not fond of office politics or bureaucracy, which he feels only gets in the way of getting the job done and saving lives. In the first episode, he takes Ethel with him to the site of an accident even though as a probationer she’s supposed to stay on hospital grounds at all times. Later, he tells Ethel that she shouldn’t have to stay for the rest of her shift after being exposed to a patient with a very grave illness. While it may seem that Millais gives special preference to Ethel, this attitude is also evident in the way he socialises with other colleagues: he’s uncomfortable having dinner with the house surgeon, thinking instead about the people standing outside the hospital in need of medical aid.
Ethel also goes to great extents to fulfill the needs of her patients. She stays with Lucy Strong both in the receiving and examination room until Millais comes to examine her. She administers alcohol to a patient despite nurses not being allowed to prescribe treatment, even if it’s only to ease a patient’s discomfort. Her initiative gets her into trouble with Sister Ada, her superior, and Miss Luckes, the matron of the hospital. Ethel’s desire to become a doctor despite the trends of the time shows that she too doesn’t completely conform with what society expects of her at the time, something perhaps Millais identifies with.
Over time their relationship evolves into something more than just work. There are many small exchanges between them, such as Ethel providing Millais a drink to help with his hangover, a smile and a meaningful glance here and there. Then comes the turning point in their relationship when Ethel contracts scarlet fever from a patient. Millais is visually distraught, taking Ethel to the isolation ward and later visiting her. He suggests the last resort treatment when her health takes a turn for the worse. For a man who always seems to know what to do in a tricky situation, it’s clear that Ethel had become important to him.
Their relationship continues to progress despite that relationships between doctors and nurses were strictly forbidden at the time. They find moments of time together amidst busy work schedules, reassignments and Ethel’s extracurricular studies. Like any other couple, Ethel and Millais’ relationship encounters moments of miscommunication, like when Millais fails to see Ethel and comfort her as soon as he hears dire
news about her brother.
The real-life story of Ethel Bennett and Millais Culpin differs considerably from what is conveyed in the show. It is unclear whether they met at any point during Millais’ time in London, but when Millais was assigned to the British hospital in Shanghai shortly after 1907 he made a request to the London Hospital for the best nurse to travel to Shanghai and work there. Miss Luckes sent Ethel and in 1913 they married. Ethel and Millais initially settled in Australia where they had one daughter, Frances, but after WWI the family returned to England where they lived and worked.
Ethel and Millais’ story in the series is quiet but poignant, brought together by their desire to help others and built on respect, trust and friendship. Their personalities may differ but they also complement and bring out the best in each other: Millais in encouraging Ethel’s ambitions and talents and Ethel in prompting Millais to be communicative about his feelings. Their work in the hospital is obviously an important aspect of who they are but at the end of the day, as Millais said, “My work is important to me. But it’s not as important as you are to me.” ■