Darton, Patience (1911–1996)

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Darton, Patience (1911–1996)

British nurse in the Spanish Civil War and political activist. Name variations: Patience Edney. Born Patience Darton in Orpington, Kent, England, on August 27, 1911; died in Madrid, Spain, on November 6, 1996; had a sister, Hillary Darton; married Eric Edney; children: one son, Robert.

Patience Darton was born into a prosperous publishing family in 1911, but, by the time she was in her mid-teens, her father's business declared itself bankrupt, and the family had to live in straitened economic circumstances. Although she had hoped to study medicine, the shrunken family purse made this an impossibility. Consequently, she chose instead a career in nursing. Even this modest goal was not easily achieved. Darton had to save for fully three years from her sparse earnings as a nanny and later as a cook in a tea restaurant, in order to have the more than £8 needed to pay the admission fees and purchase the uniform that would enable her to enroll in a course of nursing.

As she began her studies, Darton found herself facing the Great Depression of the 1930s. Her social consciousness developed rapidly during these years. She found herself confronting massive injustices on a daily basis. For instance, many of the patients who came to her hospital for treatment were dying women who, because they lacked the one shilling and six pence needed to pay for a physician's services, had delayed going to hospital until it was too late. Employed men, on the other hand, were covered by health insurance and could therefore choose to go to their physicians on a much more frequent basis, often saving their lives as a consequence of early detection and treatment.

By the time civil war broke out in Spain in the summer of 1936, Darton had completed training as a midwife at University College Hospital, London. She worked in midwifery around Woolwich Arsenal, and it was here that the full force of suffering and social injustice in the economic depression became clear to her. Darton was furious every time hand grenades were tested at the nearby Arsenal. Each test cost £300, a vast sum that could, if budgeted for social programs, provide much-needed medical services for the poor. At the same time, her hatred of Fascism made her realize that British rearmament was probably a necessary evil. But the inequities overwhelmed her. On one occasion, she tried to calm the fears of a dying mother who was deeply concerned about the future of her seven children. Almost as distressing to Darton were the working conditions of midwives and nurses, who were poorly paid for long work weeks that were physically and emotionally draining.

Darton decided that if her nursing skills were of any value to the hard-pressed Republican forces of Spain, she would gladly go to the war and offer her assistance. Unable at first to find out how to join a nurses' volunteer unit, she contacted reporters at both the Daily Herald and News Chronicle, newspapers sympathetic to the Spanish Republican cause. Through them, she came in contact with the appropriate medical support committee. A clear indication of the desperate nature of the situation was the fact that, in February 1937, she was sent to Spain on only two days' notice.

Within days of her arrival, Darton's medical skills proved to be of great value for a wounded British volunteer, Tom Wintringham. The dubious quality of Spanish medicine, made much worse by the defection of most doctors for Fascist-occupied territory, was made clear when she discovered Wintringham, lying ill in a fly-infested hospital room, diagnosed with typhus by local doctors and quite obviously not recovering. Darton quickly concluded that Wintringham's condition had been misdiagnosed, that he was in fact suffering from malnutrition and a serious abscess. Denied help by the medical staff of the hospital, she took the initiative to lance the man's wounds and was able to provide him with a steady supply of nourishing food from visiting Britishers. The results of her ministrations were an amazing recovery from a veteran near death who could now return home.

Like all of the nurses who worked for the International Brigades in Spain, Darton put in long hours with little rest under the most dangerous conditions possible. Despite the inadequacies of the situation, she and other members of her staff were able to save many lives. Somehow, despite the pace of her life, Darton met and fell in love with a Brigade soldier, Robert Aaquist. Aaquist was born in Germany of a Norwegian father and a German-Jewish mother, and the family fled the Nazis, first to North Africa and finally to Palestine. Lieutenant Robert Aaquist died in the summer of 1938 during the Ebro offensive, the Spanish Republic's last, and unsuccessful, military gamble. Though Darton was enormously grieved when informed of Aaquist's death, she was transferred to the front lines, where her work in the midst of death and bombardment proved to be therapeutic.

The Ebro offensive was the tragic last gasp of Republican Spain. Lacking weapons, the Republican forces, strengthened by the International Brigades, hoped that their courage and military experience would match or better the firepower of the Fascists. For a few days, the situation appeared promising, but soon the tide of battle turned. Darton, working in a primitive hospital dug into a cave, cared as best she could for the rapidly growing number of wounded men.

Darton participated in the final parade of the International Brigades in October 1938 as they departed from Spain in the vain hope that Franco would reciprocate by asking his German and Italian allies to depart as well. Dolores Ibarruri , known as La Pasionaria, gave an emotional speech before the assembled veterans, declaring "You are history, you will one day return to Spain!" Darton arrived back in London in December 1938, with her memories and private grief. Soon after, more determined than ever to fight Fascism, she joined the British Communist Party but was content to remain in the rank and file of a tiny movement that was never able to gain mass support. Darton's belief in Communism was based on her idealism and clearly ignored the Machiavellian aspects of Stalinism. Besides joining committees dedicated to helping the thousands of desperate Spanish refugees in France, she devoted her medical talents to taking care of the Czech refugees, many of them Jewish, who now streamed into the United Kingdom after Hitler's most recent aggression, the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939.

By the end of World War II, Darton was working in an important post for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). She had the responsibility of getting foodstuffs to the starving civilian population of the newly liberated European Continent. Although much was accomplished by UNRRA, Darton also had many frustrations on the job, including clashes with American military officers who seemed more concerned with getting luxury supplies to American troops than shipping bare necessities to Europe's civilians. Soon after the war ended, Darton returned to her nursing job. The paranoid tensions of the Cold War dismayed her, but she remained a Communist, convinced that the Soviet Union had found the best path for its future.

In the early 1950s, she married Eric Edney, a Communist Party official, and belatedly started a family. Besides remaining a social activist in her profession in and around London, Darton believed that the Chinese too had made the right decision in 1949 by creating the Chinese People's Republic and attempting to build Socialism. Rather naively, Darton and her husband went to China, hoping to contribute to the efforts to change society. Her son Robert was born there. Soon after, however, Darton and her family found itself enmeshed in China's domestic turmoil. Eric was arrested, and for a time it appeared that Patience and her son too would find themselves behind bars. She discovered to her regret that, despite its Socialist government, China remained China. But Darton remained stubbornly committed to the Communist ideal and did not quit, as many had, the tiny British Communist Party.

Always extremely frank in voicing her opinions, in her last years Patience Darton expressed regrets about some of the things she had done—or not done—in her long life. On one theme, however, she expressed great satisfaction, the time she had spent in Spain during the Civil War. This had been, she continued to believe, "a great cause" and she remained proud of having played a role, if only a small one, in that great and tragic drama of the 1930s. While admitting that the Spanish conflict had been full of complexities, she asserted that for her it was a wonderfully clear-cut affair, one simply went to Spain to take a stand against the spread of Fascism.

Fearing that she would one day linger on and eventually die in a nursing home, she told an interviewer that if faced with that choice, she would prefer to take a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Fortunately for Patience Darton, death came in the most triumphant form possible. Along with about 700 survivors of the International Brigades (out of perhaps 1,000 worldwide), she traveled to Spain in November 1996 to participate in celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Civil War. Aged and frail as she and virtually all of her comrades were, they were elated by the reception given them in Madrid, which included the granting of honorary Spanish citizenship. Fulfilling La Pasionaria's 1938 prophecy, Darton had finally returned to Spain. It was there, at age 85, that the veteran nurse suddenly died. On the previous evening, she had attended a Madrid concert given in honor of the International Brigade veterans, an emotional festivity attended by 35,000 citizens of the Spanish capital.


Alexander, Bill. British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936–1939. London: Lawrence and Wishhart, 1982.

Barker, Dennis and Shen Liknaitzky. "Patience Edney: Great Exit for a Fighter," in The Guardian [London]. November 12, 1996, p. 16.

Green, Martin. "Patience Edney," in The Independent [London]. December 2, 1996, p. 16.

Lataster-Czisch, Petra. Eigentlich rede ich nicht gern über mich: Lebenserinnerungen von Frauen aus dem Spanischen Bürgerkrieg 1936–1939. Leipzig and Weimar: Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1990.

Tarvainen, Sinikka. "Visit of 'last Romantic' war veterans opens old wounds in Spain," in Deutsche Presse-Agentur. November 11, 1996.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Darton, Patience (1911–1996)

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