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A bandaging class at Tredegar House, 1906.

A bandaging class at Tredegar House, 1906.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Nursing is one of the oldest medical occupations, but nurses only obtained professional status in the late 1800s. Nursing attendants are mentioned in all the classical texts, but could have been anyone, male or female. Male nurses were constantly used for public duties such as in prisons, asylums or the armed forces, but their history is little known.

Women’s opportunities for nursing outside the home were limited. In medieval Europe nuns nursed in convent infirmaries under the control of Catholic church authorities. In Europe religious nursing orders such as the famous Augustinian Sisters were the only model for public nursing until the 1800s.

Changes in nursing started with the hospital and prison reformers of the late 1700s. New training for nurses became available, notably at the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserworth in Germany (1836), which influenced Florence Nightingale. Nightingale reorganised army hospital nursing during the Crimean War (1853-56) and helped promote nursing as a more respectable profession for young women. The first ‘Nightingale nurses’ began training in 1860 and spread throughout the UK and the British Empire. Nightingale also revolutionised future hospital design.

Established in 1863, the International Red Cross was another international force in nurse training. European governments set up their own training programmes and the International Red Cross carried reformed nursing across the world. Professional organisations followed fast in the late 1800s. By 1930 professional nursing associations existed in 35 countries. In England the Royal College of Nursing was founded in 1916, but professional control was not given to the General Nursing Council until 1919. After the First World War, in which nurses served on the front line, a State Nursing Registry was set up which guaranteed a minimum level of training for all nurses.

Since 1945 nurse training has been extended with different specialities. There has been a rise in male nursing, and male nurses play a full part in previously all-female nursing associations.

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External links:


B Abel-Smith, A History of the Nursing Profession (London: Heinemann 1975)

C Maggs, ‘A general history of nursing’, in W F Bynum & R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 2 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 1309-1328

C Maggs (ed.), Nursing History: The State of the Art, (London: Croom Helm, 1987)