A Short History of Nursing

09 November 2020 By Michael Bowyer

Nursing seems like it should have been around forever, it’s such a crucial role in modern society. Surprisingly, the meaning of ‘nursing’ in the sense that we understand it today has only been around for the last two centuries. Enjoy our brief history of nursing!

When was the first nurse?

The word ‘nursing’ derives from the Latin, ‘nutrire’ which meant ‘to nourish’ and referred to mothers nursing or breastfeeding their children. This led to centuries of the use of ‘wet nurses’, women who would breastfeed other people’s children. Some of the functions of the modern nurse were performed by a ‘midwife’, a woman who provided assistance during births. However, formal medical practice and care was dominated by the doctor or physician for many centuries and it was only with the onset of modern warfare that the role of the ‘nurse’ was recognised as indispensable to all societies.

Who was the first nurse?

The Lady with the lamp

Florence Nightingale is thought of as the first nurse. In 1853 she chose to become a nurse instead of following her parents’ wishes to marry and live the idle life of a wealthy middle-class woman. At the time, nursing was thought of as a career for poor women. Florence Nightingale’s choice to study nursing added prestige and a positive light to the profession. Her shining contribution to hygiene and care standards during the Crimean War cemented a new understanding of the importance of nursing in everyone’s opinion.

She was known as the Lady with the Lamp because she conducted her rounds of the medical facilities at all hours of the night carrying a lamp to light her way and administering palliative care to her patients. Find out more about history’s greatest nurses here. To celebrate Florence Nightingale, we now celebrate International Nurses Day on her birthday, 12th May.

Nursing timeline

  • 1854 – Florence Nightingale and a team of trained nurses and nuns are sent to the Ottoman Empire to aid in the medical care of wounded British soldiers.

  • 1855 – Mary Seacole sets up the ‘British Hotel’ in Balaklava, Turkey which provided food, shelter and aid to the sick and wounded officers fighting in the Crimean war.

  • 1859 – The first district nursing service was established in Liverpool by William Rathbone. With the help of Florence Nightingale, he expanded this service and set up a nurses’ training school which opened in 1862.

  • 1915 - Edith Cavell is executed for her efforts to save hundreds of Allied soldiers escape to the Netherlands during WWI. Despite her impeccable nursing and humanitarian values, her actions were considered treason.

  • 1937 - Dorothy Lane’s efforts lead to the establishment of the Nurses League.

  • 1955 – Edward Lyon is the first male nurse commissioned by the Army Nurse Corps.

  • 1973 - Jean McFarlane is appointed the first professor of Nursing in England at the Faculty of Medicine at Manchester University.

What qualified you to be a nurse?

One of the reasons Florence Nightingale was so special was the changes she put in place during the Crimean war as well as reinstating hygiene protocols at hospitals. As the founder of modern days nursing, she encouraged training and development for the profession.

Prior to this there was minimal training requirements and nurses didn’t require qualifications to enter the profession. Many people became nurses to help take care of the injured during the war, or care for the sick when sickness broke out. Martha Jane Cannery (Calamity Jane) was one of those nurses born out of necessity; she was a lay nurse who took care of people afflicted by the smallpox in Deadwood 1878. Back then, like Mary Seacole, any medical (including herbal) was passed on by mothers and women would start by caring for family members before moving further afield with their knowledge.

It was Florence Nightingale who first began to offer basic training in care for nurses, she also instated a hygiene protocol that would revolutionise nursing. She taught nurses to be clean and efficient and a short course in the fundamentals of nursing. She took her best students with her in a hand-selected team to the Crimean war.

When was the first male nurse?

Today nursing is open to all genders, however, traditionally it has been a female-dominated profession. Male nurses were used on the frontlines in WW1, but they were known as ‘orderlies’ rather than ‘nurses’. After the war ended most of these orderlies went on to work in mental health care facilities and it became a gender stereotype for male nurses to work in mental health, and for female nurses to work in medical hospitals. A nursing shortage after WWII meant that men were more readily accepted into medical hospitals.

By 1955, following a gradual increase, men represented 10% of NHS nurses but this has only reached around 11% by 2015 – and still hovers around these levels today, with men more heavily represented in mental health and learning disabilities nursing.

Thank you to all nurses

Nurses have made a huge impact throughout history and are some of the most important members of society. The development of the profession has saved countless lives as well as aid in some incredible medical inventions.

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