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A brief history of nursing

By iddirect

As International Nurses Day is in May, we wanted to celebrate nurses by talking about the history of nursing as a profession. Nurses are an incredibly important part of medical care and we want to show our appreciation!

Nursing: a religious profession

While the first documents referring to nursing as a career appeared in 300 A.D., it was not until the Middle Ages that the history of nursing became more visible. In 10th– and 11th-century Europe, most hospitals were part of monasteries and, as such, nursing was predominantly performed by nuns and monks. In the 16th Century, “nurse” began to refer to someone who cared for the sick instead of a wet nurse.

The decline of nursing

In the 17th Century, the history of nursing took a downward turn. With the increase in popularity of Protestantism due to the Reformation, nursing became rarer as monasteries were closed down.

While there were some notable nurses, such as Stephen Girard, who, in 1793, cared for sick people during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, nursing was mostly seen as an inappropriate and immodest profession, especially for young, unmarried women. It often fell to older female family members or servants to care for the ill due to the lack of trained nurses.

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The Lady with the Lamp revolutionises the nursing profession

As you may know, the history of nursing as we know it today really began with the Crimean War. The Crimean War was a military conflict fought between Russia and an alliance between France, the Ottoman Empire, the United Kingdom and Sardinia. It took place from October 1853 to February 1856 in the Crimean Peninsula, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe. In 1854, Florence Nightingale led a team of nurses in Turkey to care for soldiers. She radically changed the profession by insisting that it should be performed by well-educated women rather than recovering patients. Until this point, nursing had mostly involved “domestic” duties, such as washing dishes and sweeping floors but Nightingale’s influence meant that nurses became responsible for medical care and sanitation.

From this point, the profession began to develop rapidly. In 1859, William Rathbone set up the first district nursing service. In the 1860s, the first nursing training schools appeared and in 1887, the British Nursing Association was created. This was the first step in setting standards to differentiate trained nurses from untrained nurses.

Nursing in the 20th Century

Due to the rapid advances in technology in the 20th  Century and both World Wars, nursing became more important than ever and, thus, their range of duties expanded. In the 1920s, nurses began to work with governments to provide care for women and children, such as nutrition, social support and medical care. In 1951, the profession became more inclusive, as male nurses were allowed to join the official register, and in the 1960s, nurses were given more responsibility with the appearance of nurse practitioners. In the 1970s, it was suggested that they should be educated with degrees and in 1973, Jean McFarlane became the first Professor of Nursing in England. 

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Nursing today

The history of nursing has been on a long and winding journey to lead to the work they perform today. Professional nurses are an invaluable part of healthcare. Furthermore, nursing is one of the most inclusive healthcare professions, with a higher proportional representation of racial and ethnic minorities. However, the lack of true demographic representation is one of the challenges that the profession still faces. Nursing is a very demanding occupation and other challenges that nurses face include:

  • Being overworked and underpaid
  • Busy or demanding shifts
  • Burnout
  • Safety on the job
  • Workplace violence

Finally, nursing has developed so that there are a wide variety of nurses within the healthcare system. These include:

  • Hospital nurses
  • Community nurses (such as home-care nurses)
  • Mental health nurses
  • Paediatric (children) nurses
  • Geriatric nurses

These nurses work within numerous settings to provide us with excellent care. Geriatric nursing, the brand of nursing concerned with the care of the older population, is one of the fastest-growing areas of nursing practice due to ageing populations in developed countries; the over 65s are expected to account for 20% of the global population by 2030!

At iD, we would like to thank all the wonderful nurses out there for the amazing job they do. We truly appreciate you and wish you a very happy International Nurses Day.


“5 Nursing Challenges and How to Overcome Them”, Florence, 25 March 2021, Source: https://www.florence.co.uk/posts/5-nursing-challenges-and-how-to-overcome-them

“5 Issues Nurses Face in Their Career”, Walden University, n.d., Source: https://www.waldenu.edu/online-masters-programs/master-of-science-in-nursing/resource/five-issues-nurses-face-in-their-career

“A Brief History of Nursing in the U.K.”, Professor B Gail Thomas, March 2016, Source: https://memoriesofnursing.uk/articles/a-brief-history-of-nursing-in-the-uk

“A Brief Look at the History of Nursing”, Advent Health University, 13 April 2017, Source: https://online.ahu.edu/blog/brief-look-history-nursing/

“History of Nursing”, N.T. Contributor, 8 May 2014, Source: https://www.nursingtimes.net/opinion/history-of-nursing-08-05-2014/

“History of Nursing”, Yolanda Smith, 27 February 2019, Source: https://www.news-medical.net/health/History-of-Nursing.aspx

“Nursing”, Karen Buhler-Wilkinson, n.d., Source: https://www.britannica.com/science/nursing

“The History and Definition of Wet Nurse”, Linda Lowen, 3 January 2020, Source: https://www.thoughtco.com/history-and-definition-of-wet-nurse-3534100

“The History of Nursing”, Nursing School Hub, n.d., Source: https://www.nursingschoolhub.com/history-nursing/

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