The history of nursing as a profession

Written by lisa m. russell
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  • Introduction

    The history of nursing as a profession

    Florence Nightingale says that nursing is "the finest of the fine arts." Nursing involves more than science but the soul, mind and a sensitive spirit. Early "nurses" possessed these qualities. Early American nursing history did not involve formal nurses training until the late 1800s. Using early homeopathic remedies and folk medicines were handed down to treat ailments. American wars spurred the growth of the nursing profession.

    History of nursing profession. (Lovely Doctor image by Paul Moore from

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    Civil War

    During the American Civil War, the Office of the Surgeon General reported the creation of the Sanitary Commission, but nursing was not considered a serious profession. In fact, they were not welcome in the hospitals, and in the North and South they were considered, "washer women." Women nurses from the North and the South overcame objections from the surgeons on the field, but they had to face their families at home. Family members felt it was not proper for a refined lady to work in a war hospital. Nurse Mary Stinebaugh to her father in 1863 defends her decision to serve: "You have given your boys to die for their country; now you can give your girls to nurse them."

    Civil War nurses considered "washer women" (detail in a civil war encampment 3 image by Jim Parkin from

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    Early 1900s

    In the late 1800s, the United States followed Nightingale and England's lead to form regulations and training standards. In 1897 the Nurses Associated Alumnae organised in Maryland with the purpose of regulating professional nursing colleges. In the early 1900s Virginia and New Jersey passed nursing licensing laws that were strict but standardised nursing care. At this time, nurses began working in doctor's offices in addition to hospitals.

    Virginia had strict laws for nursing. (Virginia state contour against blurred USA flag image by Stasys Eidiejus from

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    World War I

    "Nurses Week" recounts how World War I changed things for nurses: "World War I changed more than the way wars were fought. It also transformed the way soldiers were injured and the way nurses treated the wounded." The need for nurses during World War I rose dramatically. The level of nursing skill rose with modern war wounds from new weaponry. After the War, there were not enough jobs to employ nurses and opportunities were scarce as the United States entered the Great Depression.

    Need for nurses in WWI rose drastically. (Thomas Jefferson Memorial image by dwight9592 from

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    World War II

    During World War II, the need for trained nurses rose and the government provided incentives for women to enter nurses training. They provided government housing, paid training, and stipends. Nurses were close to the front lines and the"chain of evacuation" contributed to fewer than 4 per cent of soldiers who received nursing care died from wounds. The U.S. Cadet Nurses Corps from 1943 to 1949 recruited, trained and placed nurses during the War effort.

    Need was so great in WWII the government issued incentives. (kriegerdenkmal image by Oliver Klimek from

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    On Nov. 11, 1993, the Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall, steps away from Vietnam War Memorial or "The Wall." The memorial depicts four figures in bronze with raw emotions. Anxiety, fear, compassion and exhaustion are displayed as a nurse cares for a soldier with a chest wound lying on her lap. Another woman is looking skyward for a rescuing helicopter and a kneeling woman looks into an empty helmet grieving another loss. This memorial pictures the emotional commitment of Vietnam War nurses.

    Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall, just yards from "The Wall" on Nov. 11, 1993, (Women of Vietnam War Memorial image by dwight9592 from

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    Current Nursing

    Ageing Baby Boomers require the skill of nurses more than ever before. New technology, the introduction of Medicare in the 1960s and specialisation continues to stress the supply of trained nurses. College nursing programs expand and health care issues in the United States continues to harm the supply of doctors and nurses. With new health care reforms, the need for qualified nurses will continue to grow.

    Nurses are still in demand. (lovely doctor 24 image by Paul Moore from

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