Nursing more than just a duty - Trixie Marthenesz
For all of Trixie Marthenesz's sixty seven years spent in the nursing
profession, her constant inspiration has been Florence Nightingale's
keyword in her pledge to all newcomers joining the Training School for
Nurses she founded in 1860 during the Crimean War: "with loyalty will I
endeavour to aid the physician in his work and devote myself to the
welfare of those committed to my care"
It is this tireless devotion to a 24 hour job that singles out the
nursing profession from all others, says Trixie, one of her most ardent
followers. "Patients get admitted to a hospital because only nursing
care can offer them services of persons whose knowledge filled head and
dexterous hands are inspired by a loving heart", she said echoing
She remembers reiterating Nightingale's words again when, along with
other newly passed out student nurses dressed in white sarees and white
sandals, she had stood in line for her capping ceremony in 1951
admitting her to the worldwide sisterhood of nursing, at the University
of Delhi. The chief guest on that memorable occasion was the first
Health Minister of the first Indian Cabinet Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, she
At 88 hitting 89, the sprightly soon to be nonagenarian is certainly
not in a hurry to discard the nurses uniform she has worn nearly all her
life excepting for the first 18 years when she was schooling prior to
her departure to New Delhi in 1950 - the first batch of student nurses
to follow a degree course in nursing in Sri Lanka, albeit on foreign
As she springs from her desk with the agility of a netball player and
the grace of a dancer to greet cameraman Vipula Amerasinghe and this
writer, when we enter her book-lined sitting room, she looks ready to
rock and roll for another decade.
Despite her fully grey hair, her face is unlined, and while most
women her age shuffle and bump their way through life depending on
walking sticks, walking aids, and carers, she flits like a butterfly in
constant motion, moving lightly and swiftly to show us treasures hidden
in her memory box containing photographs, newspaper cuttings, scraps
from albums, family snaps which tell the story of her life, spanning two
different centuries. Most important in that treasure box are the books
she has written over the years to enhance the knowledge of junior pupil
nurses whom she still continues to teach at the Open University, Sri
Jayawardenapura University , and the Kotalawela Defence University. She
is especially proud of the fact that it was she who trained the first
batch of eighty nine male and female students in their first year of
The daughter of a middle level civil servant whose work took him to
almost every part of the island, her first school was Holy Family
Convent, Kurunegala at the age of five. She remained in the school till
age ten during which time she received a good foundation in the English
language, enabling her much later to write a grammar book for beginner
nurses in the hope of improving their English.
"When I was ten the war broke out and all the schools in our town
were closed and the students evacuated and sent to schools outside the
war zone. I was sent to Seevali Vidyalaya in Ratnapura. It was a fee
levying private a co-educational school like most schools at the time,
and it was there that I learned Bharatha Natyam dancing under maestro
Pani Bharatha, a pupil of Shanthi Niketan, who taught dancing in our
school," she recalls.
From there, she was admitted to Ladies' College, when her father was
transferred briefly to Colombo, and after the SSC exam she was admitted
to Ananda College.
"I wanted to do science. In the 1940s no girls' schools had any
laboratories to do our dissection work which was compulsory for
admission to the university. Only a few boys' schools had fully equipped
labs, and Ananda Vidyalaya was one. It was a co-educational private
school at that time like all schools in the country, as there were no
government schools. Since the number of pupils in our class was small (
no more than ten to fifteen), we did our own dissections, unlike in
today's overcrowded classrooms, where the teacher does the dissections
due to the time factor.", she recalls.
From her memory box, she draws several anecdotes of that period spent
at Ananda College.
"Most boys' schools with labs had their own ponds - not for
beautifying the school, but rather to breed frogs and fish for our
dissection classes. I remember one of the labourers, Simon whose job was
to catch these poor creatures with a fishing net, and chloroform them,
so that we could wax and dissect them. He used to bring in cockroaches
from the school compound in empty matchboxes and worms in bottles".
It was at Ananda College that she learned to be a lady, she
confesses. "After going to this boys' school, all of us learned to sit
properly with our legs crossed and to the side, instead of spreading
them as we did in a girls' school. We also learned to be more soft
spoken and lady like to impress the boys. I also became a sportswoman,
an athlete and swimmer. Despite being quite fat (I was called 'Roly Poly
Trixie') I became the sprint queen though most of the boys placed their
bets on my rival, a tall thin girl." she says with a tinge of pride at
the recollection. To this day, Trixie considers herself as 'the most
Senior Old Anandian (SOA)'
So how did this tom boy end up as a nurse?
"Nursing was never a childhood dream", admits this pioneer nursing
sister. "My entry to the profession was quite by chance."
Ceylon had just got her independence in 1948 and the government was
already embarking on a 'Ceylonization' of the hospitals, she recalls.
"All the English and Irish nuns were leaving the island, and the
hospitals needed replacements - from Sri Lankans. So, when a gazette
notification appeared in the Ceylon Daily News in 1950, calling for
girls between 16 and 25 holding a London Matriculation certificate, to
be trained for a nursing diploma for four years in Delhi, I applied. I
was 17 years at the time. Three other Lankan girls from different
schools also applied." She still has vivid memories of the saree she
wore on that occasion. "It was the first time I wore a saree. It was sea
blue georgette. I wore wedge heeled shoes, with a one and a half inch
heel,, which was the fashion in the mid forties."
On the night of July 12, 1950, carrying their metal padlocked trunks
packed with clothes and gifts, the three selected girls, left for
Madras, boarding the night mail train to Talaimannar Pier, then
travelling by steam boat to Danushkodi Pier in India. "The boat captain
passed the time giving us a brief history, geography and cultural lesson
about India, since we knew very little about this vast sub continent as
geography was not a subject in our curriculum in school then", she
"We were the first batch to leave Sri Lanka for nursing education in
Delhi. We returned in July 1954 after undergoing a very comprehensive
nursing course, both practical and theory, which took us to distant
villages in the poorest areas in Delhi, where we made home visits and
helped heal wounded villagers, physically and mentally", she says in
Of the nursing profession itself, in Sri Lanka, she says the major
breakthrough for nurses came with the establishment of the Public Health
Nurses' Association ( OPHNA) in 1934 which helped in the setting up of
the Nurses Training School in Colombo in 1930. Another step forward was
the state registration of nurses which gave nurses the legal status to
practise, but no autonomy, by the Ceylon Medical Council. The post of
Principal Public Health Nurse at the Ministry of Health was another
By 1953, the profession had progressed remarkably well, she notes,
with reviews of curricula, opening of Schools of Nursing and promotion
of nurses to higher positions in the three different areas of education,
hospital service and public health. Also Ceylonisation of the nursing
service was nearing completion during this time".
Adventurous, spirited and daring, this trail blazing nursing sister
who left the shelter of her home and family at a time when most young
girls were not even allowed to cross the thresholds of their homes, and
returned with a Baccalaureate degree in nursing, boasts of an impressive
list of achievements amassed during her 89 years of life.
One of the first graduate nurses in Sri Lanka, after obtaining her
BSc ( Hons) degree from the University of Delhi in 1954, she went on to
get a diploma in Clinical Teaching from the Royal College of Nursing,
University of London in 1967. Thereafter, she served as a senior tutor
in the Post Basic School of Nursing, Colombo (1960-81) during which time
she served on the Ceylon Medical Council. Currently, she is a visiting
academic to students in three universities; Open University, University
of Sri Jayawardenepura, and the Kothalawela Defence University at
She is also a member of several organisations spawned in the 20th
century. They include; Sri Lanka Federation of University Women where
she was a former editor of its newsletter, Soroptomist International
Colombo, Sri Lanka Women's Conference , the Sri Lanka Nurses'
Association ( an affiliate of the International Council of Nurses) and
the Patron of the Graduate Nurses Foundation Sri Lanka (an affiliate of
the Organisation of Professional Associations in Sri Lanka (OPA.)
She is also an author of several books, both, fiction on health
issues and on nursing, the last mostly aimed at improving social and
other skills in junior nurses.
If she had one wish what would it be? we ask. A member of several
travel clubs, she says, "I would like to continue travelling to other
countries. I often travel in my dreams. So why not the real thing?" she
asks as we leave.