Nurse Appreciation Week: History of Nursing

The history of nursing is long and storied; though its roots can be traced back to ancient times, the profession as we know it today began to originate in the 17th century. For much of human history, the concept of a “nurse” did exist in one capacity or another- in India, some two thousand plus years ago, the then equivalent of healthcare professionals began treating patients with various minerals and oils. In renaissance Italy, nursing became more advanced, as studies of the human body paved way for more meticulous care, and throughout Europe, the Catholic Church turned to nuns for care of the sick and infirm. With the exception of the last example however, women were generally discouraged from taking on professional roles caring for patients. This began to change between the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably with arguably the most famous nurse in history, English nurse Florence Nightingale. Honing her skills as she treated countless soldiers during the Crimean war, her book, Notes on Nursing, became one of the principal texts in the early history of the modern nursing era. The contents of this book were revolutionary for the time, helping to decrease mortality rates amongst nursing patients the world over due to its advised practices on a whole host of matters, including proper sanitary, and sterile procedures.


Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nursing began to become increasingly professional and standardized as a practice, though throughout much of the world, Europe in particular, many nurses were primarily nuns, or similarly religious roles. Over time, nursing became more secular as an overall profession, and the advent of nursing schools in the late 1800’s led more and more women, increasingly entering the workforce in larger numbers, to enter the profession of nursing. The two World Wars shortly afterwards cemented the legacy and importance of nursing, as women who were forbidden to serve in combat often sought to treat those wounded in battle. The technological advancements of the 20th century, along with the medical knowledge and experience gleaned from the two World Wars helped to modernize the profession as we know it today. Following the post-WWII period, post-secondary nursing schools, both in the form of colleges and vocational training, became overwhelmingly common, and this influx of highly trained, highly educated, and largely female professional body led to the advent of nurses’ unions and other labor organizations, leading to better pay and conditions in the workplace. Today, nurses are highly autonomous professionals, charged with a great deal of responsibility and decision-making skills within the modern healthcare environment, and the concept of the “nurse” itself has been fundamentally altered. Academic and professional tracts like that of the Nurse Practitioner and Nurse Anesthetist allow the nursing profession an even greater degree of autonomy, as they perform advanced roles traditionally performed only by physicians.


Overall, the history of nursing is incredibly fascinating, and the full breadth of this topic is too short to read about in a page or two. Although this serves as an excellent summary, we implore anyone who’s interested in the evolution of the nursing profession to further research this topic. Further, although nursing is comprised of both men and women, there is a special significance placed on nursing with regard to the role of women’s’ rights and women in the professional environment due to its history as one of the first viable routes for women to enter the workplace.