Florence Nightingale and the History of Nursing

NursingMay 31, 2014

If you play a word association game and hear the word "nurse," you may immediately think of hospitals and clinics — the most common work places for nurses. But the history of nursing reads very different than today's reality. Nursing originated in the home, and then traveled to the battlefield during wars of the 19th century. Florence Nightingale, a British social activist and writer, was one of the pioneer nurses who played a central role in this early history.

Nurses in the Home

Nursing started as home care. Many caretakers were family members and neighbors, but some nurses were compensated for their contributions. Nursing therefore provided one of the earliest opportunities for women to earn money.

Nurses During War

Several 19th century wars, including the US Civil War and the Crimean War in Europe, brought thousands of nurses into the battlefield. These nurses not only treated wounded soldiers, they also helped pivot nursing education and establish nursing standards. Florence Nightingale, often described as the "first nurse," played a key role in transforming the profession from an individual contribution to an organized profession. Though she was not the first person to practice nursing, she can still accurately be described as the founder of modern nursing. Her contributions include the creation of principals for nursing, the recruitment and training of a team of nurses who traveled to the war zone in Crimea, the lobbying of sanitation standards and authorship of the book Notes on Nursing.

Nurse Education

In the United States, the success of nursing during the Civil War helped spur the creation of formal nursing education, which was rare at the time. These 19th century classes were based on the teachings of Florence Nightingale. Hospitals typically offered these courses; they were a combination of classroom study and hands-on training.

Nursing Organizations

Meanwhile, the arrival of industrialization and urbanization meant that patient care increasingly took place in hospitals. The development of nursing into an organized profession resulted in the need for regulations and standards. According to the article American Nursing: An Introduction to the Past, newly created nursing organizations helped fill this role by lobbying for laws and a licensing system for nurses. The continued focus on nursing programs, diplomas and official titles brought the profession closer to today's highly regulated field. But those increased career opportunities were not provided to everyone; discriminatory laws and practices restricted men and people of color from working freely in nursing. Many nursing schools refused to admit men, and nurses of color faced segregation both at school and work. It wasn't until civil right laws required equal treatment that modern nursing truly was founded.

Today, nursing differs dramatically from the profession Florence Nightingale practiced. But she was a key figure who contributed to raising the status of nursing to one of the highest paid and most respected professions in the world. In fact, many nursing programs still teach her principals — and Notes on Nursing is a common textbook!

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


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