Not since Florence Nightingale has a nurse speaking out caused such a stir. The case of Graham Pink, who has died aged 91, became part of NHS folklore. He was nursing’s most famous whistleblower, although for him the term was “inelegant” and he preferred “truth-teller”.
His truth was the patient suffering he witnessed nightly in the late 1980s on the elderly care wards at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport, Greater Manchester, where there were just not enough staff to cope with the desperately ill and dying patients. “Mr Pink”, as he was universally known, came to public attention through a series of polite but passionate letters about the plight of his patients. He wrote to hospital managers, civil servants and politicians all the way up to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Extracts of the many letters, with his trademark signoff “Yours faithfully, FG Pink”, were published in the Guardian in April 1990. They had been passed on by the local MP, Andrew Bennett, with Pink’s reluctant agreement. The reader response in those pre-internet days was phenomenal, and Pink himself received more than 4,000 letters of support. But though he never named any patients, hospital management sacked him in 1991 for breaching patient confidentiality.
Initially he was not a member of a union, but he joined the Royal College of Nursing, which supported him at his disciplinary hearing. Then he fell out with his rep and quit the RCN. His determination sometimes bordered on stubbornness, he did not know the meaning of the word compromise, and while he was widely admired, the admiration was not universal. Many of his colleagues thanked him for taking a stand, but others felt his whistleblowing reflected badly on them.
The case went to a tribunal, where, two weeks in, the health authority conceded the dismissal had been unfair, as Pink had not been given a warning. He was awarded the maximum compensation of £11,188, but did not get his job back. His career over, he had nonetheless become a nursing hero and an inspiration to a generation of student nurses. Courageous and principled, his pursuit of “decent care” made him a standard bearer for properly resourced nursing.
Pink was born in Manchester, the youngest of five children. His father, Victor, was a bank clerk, and his mother, Magdalene (nee Davis), a secretary and music tutor. Pink recalled her juggling the family finances and how, in pre-NHS days, paying the doctors’ bills was a source of great stress.
On leaving St Bede’s college in Manchester in the late 40s, for his two year’s national service he joined the sick berth branch of the Royal Navy, where he began his nurse training. He qualified as a state registered nurse at Withington hospital, Manchester, in 1951 and then worked as a nurse for three years (including a year in Canada).
He left the NHS to become a teacher at St Mary’s RC secondary modern school in Stretford, Greater Manchester, where he taught English, geography and woodwork for 25 years, the last 10 as head of English. Morrissey was one of his pupils and later penned the scathing lyrics of The Headmaster Ritual about his time at the school. But he wrote to Pink to say how much he had enjoyed being taught by him. In turn, Pink said he had fond memories of the rebellious teenager, whom he described as “a very bright young man”.
At 52 Pink took early retirement from teaching and returned to nursing, first as a student nurse tutor and then as a night duty staff nurse in the regional acute burns and plastic surgery unit at Withington. In 1987 he became supervising charge nurse for nights at Stepping Hill.
After his dismissal he travelled the country speaking to gatherings of nurses. He explained that he had made a case for three more nurses each night, but that would have set a precedent for elsewhere, and the issue of nurse staffing ratios remains a bone of contention to this day.
His campaign led to a World in Action television documentary and debates in the House of Commons, and helped to create momentum for the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, designed to protect whistleblowers. His book, A Time To Speak – Diary of an NHS Whistleblower, was published in 2013. He never received any apology for his treatment, and a “Pardon Mr Pink” campaign fell on deaf ears.
In retirement, when he was not hiking or visiting youth hostels (a pastime he had enjoyed since his younger days as a scout leader) he was studying. He gained an MSc in healthcare ethics at the University of Liverpool and a PhD from Manchester. Over the years he had been banking his nursing salary and living off his teaching pension. One day in 2019 he announced he was giving £250,000 to refurbish Keswick youth hostel in the Lake District.
He told his family his goal was to support some major Youth Hostel Association projects with a total of £1m. Once his home and personal effects are sold he will fulfil that ambition. The YHA has plans for a Pink memorial at Bryn Gwynant youth hostel in Snowdonia, which he had helped to save.
He moved from the family home in Whalley Range, Manchester, where he had lived all his life, to spend his last six years in Barnsley, near his niece. His health deteriorated in his final year, his death coming from sepsis, but he was full of praise for the NHS staff who cared for him.
He is survived by 14 nieces and nephews.