A History of Nursing

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Nursing is one of the world's most enduring professions. There is a long history of people devoting their lives to the care of the sick. Through the centuries, nursing has evolved from practices based on tradition and myths to today's rigorously trained professionals.

Early History

  • In ancient times, there were no professional nurses. People cared for the ill in their homes or brought them to temples for healing. In the early days of Christianity, nursing and care of the sick began to be seen as an act of charity, and women especially were given the task of nursing. Hospitals began to be built adjacent to monasteries and convents, and nuns and brothers cared for the poor and sick who were brought to them.

    During the Protestant Reformation, as monasteries and convents were wiped out, so too were the hospitals. While the study of medicine flourished in the universities, the practice of nursing did not. Nursing was not considered a suitable profession, and those nurses who were not in religious orders were seen as illiterate, drunken and immoral. Many were prostitutes.

    There were many religious orders that did continue nursing the sick, including the order of St. Vincent DePaul, the Order of the Visitation of Mary, the Sisters of Charity and the Hospitallers of St. John. However, training was limited to traditions passed down from prior generations. The sick, the mentally ill, the dying and the indigent were often seen as a burden on society and were often neglected.

Florence Nightingale

  • It wasn't until Florence Nightingale served as a nurse in the Crimean War (1854-56) that nursing began to be seen as a profession that required training. She and her nurses dressed wounds and pressed the British government for better food and hygiene for its soldiers. After the war, she opened the Nightingale School of Nursing, the first formal nurse training program. She also reformed midwife practices and established a health visitor service in Britain.

American Civil War

  • During the American Civil War (1861-85), Catholic sisters made up one-fifth of all the women nurses. The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame, Indiana, were particularly notable. They had no formal training but had learned many skills from their work with the poor.

    Clara Barton worked to distribute supplies and other aid to Civil War soldiers. After the war, she traveled to Europe where she learned about the International Red Cross, which aimed to relieve suffering during wartime. She returned home to create the American Red Cross and worked to expand Red Cross efforts to include epidemics and natural disasters. Her efforts revolutionized nursing care during wartime and catastrophes.

20th Century

  • During World War II, many women served as nurses. There were as many as 2,000 hospitals with nurse training programs in the U.S. When the war ended, there were too many nurses for too few jobs. The quality of training varied among hospitals as well. Smaller hospitals gradually realized they would be more efficient without a nurse training program.

    Nursing education shifted to colleges and universities. As medicine and nursing care improved, hospitals also improved. Nursing came to be seen as an honorable profession. Nurses served in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and clinics. They began to specialize in many areas including surgery, obstetrics/gynecology and emergency care.

Nursing Today

  • Nursing training varies from country to country. In Britain, nurses receive three years of hospital-based training. In France, nurses undergo a 28-month apprenticeship. In the U.S. licensed practical nurses receive one year of training and mainly serve in nursing homes. Registered nurses receive two or four years of training and work in hospitals, nursing homes and a variety of locations. Masters and Doctorate degrees in nursing are also available.

    Nurses today are the backbone of the health care system. They perform many important functions and are highly trained to provide the best possible care for their patients.



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