Passing of Professor Joyce Mary Mellish

Described as a ‘Nurse of Substance’ (Nursing Update, February 2004), Professor Joyce Mary Mellish passed away peacefully on 26 November 2013 at the age of 95 in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. On 30 August 2013 she celebrated her 95th birthday with friends and family. Her niece, Ann Queripel also a nurse, enthralled all present with highlights of her aunt’s many distinguished accomplishments.

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Born in Cape Town on 30 August 1918, her short-lived first career started off in the commercial world as a shorthand typist. This skill would stand her in good stead as a nurse author in later years. During World War II she first became a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) of the Red Cross Society and worked at Groote Schuur Hospital. This experience was so rewarding that, even before the war had ended, Mellish formally started her second career as a nurse at the Victoria Hospital.

During her training Mellish endured a 60-hour workweek with one day off. She attended lectures in her off-duty time and not even night duty was a good enough reason for her not to attend midday lectures. She observed with wonder the miraculous recovery of patients from infected war-inflicted wounds through the use of new medications like penicillin. This enthusiasm about research was to remain with her throughout her nursing career. At the age of 26 she completed her nursing studies with honours.

At the age of 29, Mellish completed her midwifery training with honours at the Frere Hospital in East London. Thereafter she moved back to the Cape and worked at the Groote Schuur Hospital which launched her into a teaching career in nursing where she made her mark in South Africa.

Mellish proceeded to complete a Diploma in Nursing Education at the University of the Witwatersrand. After completing the diploma, she taught the full curriculum to student nurses at the Frere Hospital College and subsequently at the Carinus Nursing College in Cape Town.

Her interest in, and development of, speech and drama skills were most suitable for her career in nursing education. This interest took Mellish beyond the borders of this country. She contributed to international debate at conferences and undertook study tours. Mellish actively participated in ensuring that standards of nursing practice within the borders of South Africa were upheld. She was also a full time examiner for the South African Nursing Council (SANC) until the age of 52.

Not daunted by the inconvenience of travel across the length and breadth of the country, she simultaneously pursued part-time studies for a BA degree through UNISA majoring in Sociology and Psychology which she obtained at the age of 49.

Her academic career was fast-tracked from here, obtaining her first M Cur degree (Advanced Nursing Education) from the University of Pretoria at the age of 53, being one of the early Masters graduates of the doyen of South African nursing, Professor Charlotte Searle. Now well prepared for academia, Mellish took a post at the University of the Western Cape while studying for her second M Cur degree (Advanced Nursing Administration) at the University of Pretoria and graduating at the age of 56.

In 1975, at the age of 57, Mellish was appointed as the first Professor and Head of Nursing at the University of Port Elizabeth. The following year she became the first nurse in South Africa to obtain a D Cur degree.

At the age of 64 Professor Mellish retired to Cape Town. At her retirement she was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the South African Nursing Association.

Mellish’s love for writing continued well into retirement and at the time of her death she had published 11 nursing texts, three of which have been translated into Afrikaans.

Professor Mellish retained a deep interest in nursing until the end. Her former students have many memories of stimulating and informal tutorials at which there was a real ‘meeting of the minds’. In a tribute to Joyce Mary Mellish published in SA Nurses of Distinction (South African Nursing Association, 1989), Sandra Johnston, one such former student, writes: “Professor Mellish has the enviable reputation of being one of the most revered grande dames of the nursing profession in South African. Not only as an accomplished professional woman but also as the epitome of a lady. She continues in her golden years to be a role model for all who wish to rise to the top in nursing.”

At her 85th birthday, Mellish’s advice to nurses and those entering into the profession was to remember that ‘nursing is about caring’.

In January 2011 she relocated to Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

Tribute by Dr Una Kyriacos, Division of Nursing & Midwifery, University of Cape Town, former student of Professor Mellish, first published in 2004.

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