TRIBUTES have been paid to Ethel Armstrong, patron of the NHS Retirement Fellowship, who died on August 6, aged 90.

Mrs Armstrong, nee Garthwaite, was born on August 4, 1930, in Durham. Her father Kenneth was a miner and she was an older sister to John.

She attended Tanfield Grammar School until she was 17 when her headmaster recommended that she get a job rather than continue into the sixth form. She was unable to attend university because there were no grants for women to study medicine or dentistry at that time.

She started her career at St Nicholas Hospital, a mental health hospital, in Newcastle, as a cadet nurse where she experienced a variety of different departments. Once she was 18, she joined the school of radio diagnosis on the same day as the birth of the NHS – July 5, 1948.

She primarily worked in the developing fields of radiography and radiotherapy. Following her marriage to Harry Armstrong in 1949 she worked in many different NHS organisations around the country as her husband was a director with the manufacturing company Hawker Siddeley, meaning that Mrs Armstrong moved house 16 times before she retired.

She worked with the pioneering orthopaedic surgeon John Charnley on his work to introduce hip replacement surgery and then as tutor and adviser to the Liverpool Breast Screening Service whilst it developed its approach as an experimental unit.

The service was so successful it was later adopted by the NHS in the 1980s and is responsible for detecting breast cancer as early as possible saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of women. She remained with the service in Liverpool until her retirement in 1989.

The Northern Echo:

Ethel Armstrong shortly before her retirement

It was at this point that she returned to County Durham and launched herself into a number of voluntary roles.

She continued to be involved heavily with the service through her work with the Durham branch of the NHS Retirement Fellowship.

She served as chairman from 1994 until it closed in March 2018. By this time, Mrs Armstrong had become part of the charity’s National Council in 2005 and was elected vice-chairman in 2009, chairman in 2011 and president in 2013.

She worked tirelessly on behalf of the organisation, clocking up thousands of miles annually to visit branches of retired NHS staff around the country and visiting NHS organisations and dignitries.

The fellowship formally recognised her years of dedication and service to retired NHS staff by electing her life patron in 2015.

She also continued to serve local NHS trusts in the North-East by taking on governor roles in Newcastle and County Durham and Darlington.

Her services to the NHS in her career and in retirement were recognised in 2018 when she was awarded the MBE.

She dedicated her MBE to the thousands of staff she had worked with and engaged with throughout her long years of service and said: “The NHS is part of who I am, and I have been proud and lucky enough to have been there at the start of this wonderful institution. It’s a particular honour to receive this in the year that the NHS turns 70 and I see this as a nod to all the special people I’ve had the privilege of working for over the decades.”

The Northern Echo:

Ethel Armstrong with her MBE

Mrs Armstrong was a pioneer for women in the first days of the NHS and she has been described as “strong minded, fiercely independent with a great ability to charm and engage with NHS current, managers and leaders and retired NHS staff from across a number of disciplines”.

She is survived by her brother John.