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The Origins and Meaning of Nursing

Nursing Resource Clock

The Origins and Meaning of Nursing

Even in the early cradles of civilization, societies used nursing to care for the sick. However, what began as a caretaker role born out of religious duty and charity, transformed over centuries to encompass highly specialized skills used in leadership positions to shape society wellness.

Today, the centuries of progress in the field culminate to help graduate students achieve online Master's in Nursing through the same superior evidence-based practice found in the campus classroom. And with the fusion of Nursing Management & Executive Leadership specialization through the digital medium, the online MSN is the next evolutionary step in nursing.

Nursing in the Biblical Era and Middle Ages

If today’s nurses represent a highly sophisticated model of patient diagnosis, treatment and care, antiquity’s earliest nurses formed a simple sketch of a caretaker.

Phoebe was the first nurse mentioned in the Holy Bible. Commissioned by St. Paul as a deaconess serving the church, Phoebe is said to have exemplified early Christian ideals of charity and selflessness. She gave care to sick strangers, orphans and travelers under her own roof.

Other deacons and deaconesses followed in Phoebe’s footsteps. Religious servants of convents and monasteries established some of the first hospitals.

The Hotel Dieu in Paris, dating to 651 A.D. offered shelter and care by Augustinian nuns. A diagnostic process was non-existent for these nurses. It was not uncommon to find six patients in every bed. Patients with communicable diseases mingled with those who had physical ailments like broken limbs.

The Protestant Reformation

As European society grew disillusioned with the Church, power shifted away from religious figures and settled on monarchies. In the 16th century, Henry VIII disbanded convents and monasteries, which directly impacted the era’s hospitals.

Women of lower socioeconomic status unsuitable for other work replaced nuns and monks in hospitals. Patient care experienced setbacks because many of these women were forced into unwanted caretaker positions for which they were not qualified.

Elizabeth Fry

Nursing took a major progressive step in the 19th century when Quaker philanthropist Elizabeth Fry spearheaded legislation reform for prisons and hospitals.

Bearing witness to deplorable conditions, Fry went on to found a nursing school in England, the Protestant Sisters of Charity. It was devoted to improving standards of care as well as the patient environment for every sick individual.

Fry’s charitable influence extended to Germany, where Lutheran pastor Thedor Fliedner established a deaconess training school and hospital in Kaiserwerth. The efforts at Kaiserwerth combined nursing principles with Christian teachings.

Florence Nightingale

Born into a highly educated, wealthy British family in 1820, Florence Nightingale shunned the traditional female role of the Victorian era to dedicate her life to nursing. A trip to Fliedner’s Kaiserwerth hospital gave her a foundation in patient care experience.

When the Crimean War erupted in 1854, Nightingale offered her services to England’s War Office to help decrease the mortality rate of British soldiers who were as vulnerable to death off the battlefield as much as they were on it.

Nightingale headed to Crimea with 38 nurses. Her efforts helped solider deaths dramatically plummet. Nightingale’s impact on the war field enhanced her political influence to help her found a school of nursing at St. Thomas Hospital in London.

Nightingale wrote and published the influential Notes on Nursing in 1860, which placed a great focus on the quality of patient care, including the importance of cleanliness and observation practices.

The American Civil War and Nursing Leadership

When the Civil War broke out in the 1860s, female nurses broke gender barriers by working outside the home to provide critical medical service on the front lines. A new generation of nurses was born, including Dorothea Dix, Jane Woolsey, Kate Cummings and Clara Barton.

Barton founded the American Red Cross, which to this day provides emergency supplies and medical services in times of disaster. Barton demonstrated the idea that nursing is not simply about bedside care, but that a nurse can be a leader in rallying staff and implementing change in organizations.

In Barton’s footsteps, a modern framework for nursing emerged, guided by new nurse training programs. The Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia opened as the nation’s first nurse training school in 1872. That same year, the New England Hospital for Women and Children was established.

The New England program had the first official nursing graduate in the United States—Linda Richards. Following graduation, Richards went on to establish training programs nationwide and globally.

World War II and Beyond

World War II is considered another turning point for nurses. No longer bound by the stringent rules they previously followed as caretakers or maids, nurses helped patients and hospital staff in new ways. They became bedside decision-makers in care and diagnosis. Congress underscored their importance by subsidizing a federal nurse education program in 1943.

In the 1960s, the concept of nurses with advanced skills, or nurse practitioners, began to take shape. In the face of rising physician shortages and booming patient costs, these nurses conducted studies to attempt to prove their value to the health care community.

A 1994 New England Journal of Medicine study asserted that care provided by nurse practitioners is equal or superior to that of physicians, validating the importance of the role.

Nursing Today

History reveals a remarkable transformation in nursing. Created out of necessity and charity, nurses have been able to carry the domesticated ideals of compassion and respect for human life throughout the centuries while shattering gender boundaries.

Once a passive role of service, improvement in patient care and quality necessitated nurses to take active involvement in the health care of society. Today, these added responsibilities are an integral part of MSN programs. A master’s in nursing allows graduates to become vocal partners with physicians, develop the business acumen to maintain quality in all facets of a health care setting and train future generations of nurses.

Representing society’s biggest patient advocates, nurses can use continuing education through the online medium to fully enrich areas of specialization that will benefit the patients of tomorrow.

Sacred Heart University is an accredited institution of higher learning which promotes spiritual and ethical values and rejoices in learning and discovery. The many programs that are offered strive to prepare students to make meaningful contributions to the world.