Historical Perspective of Nursing

Brief history of nursing

Nursing, as a profession, has a rich and complex history that spans centuries. From its earliest beginnings to the modern advancements, nursing has evolved and adapted to meet the changing needs of society. The history of nursing is a tapestry woven with the threads of compassion, dedication, and innovation. From ancient civilizations to modern times, nurses have been at the forefront of caring for sick people and promoting health and well-being.

The roots of nursing can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where caring for the sick and wounded was considered a sacred duty. In ancient Egypt, there were dedicated temples where healing rituals took place, and priests and priestesses played a crucial role in caring for the sick throughout the history of nursing. Similarly, in ancient Greece, the goddess Hygieia, was revered as the protector of health, and her temples served as early healthcare centers.

Evolution of nursing as a profession

The evolution of nursing as a profession is a testament to the tireless efforts of countless individuals who have dedicated their lives to caring for others. They have devoted their lives to exploring the transformational requirements of nursing from a largely informal practice to a formalized profession with the establishment of standards, education, and practice.

Read in detail: Summary of ancient cultures and healthcare practices:

1. From early response to societal changes:

The evolution of nursing as a profession has been a remarkable journey that has transformed the healthcare industry. The history of nursing profession has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a female-dominated occupation to being recognized as an essential and respected profession. The profession has evolved in response to societal changes, advancements in medical technology, and the increasing complexity of healthcare needs.

2. From domestic duty by women to specialized field:

In the early days, nursing was primarily seen as a domestic duty performed by women in their homes or religious institutions. However, with the advent of modern medicine and the recognition of the need for trained healthcare professionals, nursing started to gain recognition as a specialized field. The establishment of nursing schools and the development of nursing education programs played a crucial role in transforming nursing into a profession that requires specialized knowledge and skills.

3. From traditional bedside care to diverse settings:

Over the years, nursing has expanded beyond traditional bedside care to encompass various specialties and roles. Nurses now have the opportunity to work in diverse settings such as hospitals, clinics, schools, research institutions, and even in the corporate sector.

4. Advent of Advanced Practice Nurses:

Advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, are now able to provide primary care services and manage complex health conditions.

5. Establishment of healthcare policies and regulations:

The evolution of nursing as a profession has also been influenced by changes in healthcare policies and regulations. Nurses are now recognized as integral members of healthcare teams and are involved in decision-making processes that directly impact patient care.

6. Advancement of technology

The advancement of technology has also played a significant role in transforming nursing practice. Electronic health records, telehealth, and other digital tools have improved communication and coordination among healthcare professionals, which ultimately enhanced patient outcomes.

In conclusion, the evolution of nursing as a profession has been a dynamic process that has adapted to meet the changing needs of society and healthcare systems. From its origins as a domestic duty to its current status as a highly skilled and respected profession, nursing continues to play a vital role in providing quality healthcare to individuals and communities. As we look toward the future, it is essential to continue supporting the growth and development of nursing as a profession by investing in education, research, and policy changes that promote nursing excellence.

Role of women in history of nursing

Throughout the history of nursing, women have played a pivotal role in the development and advancement of nursing as a profession. During the Middle Ages, for instance, religious orders of nuns provided care for the sick and elderly. These women dedicated their lives to serving others and became known as skilled healers. It was the dedication and expertise of these women that laid the foundation for the formalization of nursing as a profession in the 19th century. In the foundation of modern nursing, women played the central role, some of them are:

1. Lillian Wald:

Is known as the founder of American community nursing, she introduced the term “Public Health Nurse”. She established the institute Henry Street Settlement for the social benefit of poor people and played an important role in the foundation of the Columbia University School of Nursing.

nurse visiting to a patient

2. Mary Carson Breckinridge:

Provided the family medical service by establishing the Frontier Nursing Services (FNS). She fostered the idea of decentralization of clinics and taught nurses and midwives to work autonomously in homes and communities. This idea brought a breakthrough in the history of nursing profession.

3. Clara Barton: 

The founder of the American Red Cross was a lady of compassion who fostered the idea of crisis management. She spent many years in the American Civil War serving and treating sick and injured soldiers and people. Then she realized that there must be an organization that can respond to other natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, storms, and forest fires.

4. Dorothea Dix: 

Was the founder of Dix Hill Asylum in 1856, the first American mental asylum to provide quality care to mentally ill patients.

5. Florence Nightingale:

Is known as the founder of modern nursing by introducing her unique ideas and theories in nursing practices. Her contribution to nursing education and training has had a significant impact on the nursing field. She emphasized environmental hygiene and sanitation for a healthy life. Florence Nightingale established her first nursing school in 1860 and started the professional training for nurses. Every year, nurses celebrate her birthday as International Nurses Day on 12th May, to honor her contributions and dedication throughout the history of nursing profession.

Read a comprehensive article about: Unlocking the power of healthcare technology.

History of men in nursing

The history of men in nursing dates back to the time of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, when male nurses were common. These men worked in hospitals and provided care to the sick and injured soldiers. As time went on, however, societal norms and biases began to marginalize men in this profession, leading to a drastic decrease in their numbers by the 18th century.

The modern history of men in nursing took a significant turn during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century. Florence Nightingale often hailed as the founder of modern nursing, actually trained a team of male nurses to assist in caring for wounded soldiers. This was a pivotal moment in the history of men in nursing as it marked a return of men to this profession.

In the 20th century, the history of men in nursing saw another significant change when the United States faced a severe shortage of nurses during both World Wars. Men were once again called upon to fill these roles, leading to an increase in their numbers. Today, while nursing continues to be dominated by women, men are increasingly making their mark in this field, contributing significantly to healthcare. Even so, the history of men in nursing continues to be shaped by societal perceptions and biases that must be addressed to further promote diversity and inclusivity within the profession.

Luther Christman

Luther Christman was the first male nurse in the history of men in nursing. He earned his nursing diploma in 1939. He broke the wheel of this stereotype that nursing is the field only for women. He faced the criticism of people and was rejected from the US Army Nurse Corps based on his gender.

Nursing history and religious perspectives

Religions have played a significant role in shaping the practice of nursing throughout history. In many cultures, religious beliefs and practices have been closely intertwined with healthcare. For example, in Christian traditions, caring for the sick and suffering has long been seen as an act of compassion and love. Similarly, in Islamic traditions, providing healthcare to those in need is considered a duty and a means of embodying the principles of mercy and kindness.

a priest healing a patient

Values, beliefs, and ethics:

Religions play a crucial role in shaping the values, beliefs, and ethics of individuals. These values and beliefs are directly reflected in the practice of nursing. Nurses, being at the forefront of patient care, often find themselves in situations where they need to respect and accommodate the religious beliefs of their patients. For example, in some religions, certain dietary restrictions or rituals may need to be followed during hospitalization. Nurses must be aware of these requirements and ensure that they are met to provide culturally sensitive care.

Perception of health and illness:

Moreover, religions also influence the way individuals perceive illness, suffering, and death. Different religions have different perspectives on these aspects, and nurses must be knowledgeable about them to provide holistic care. For instance, some religions believe in the healing power of prayer and may request spiritual support during times of illness. Nurses should be open to providing emotional and spiritual support to patients according to their religious beliefs.

End-of-life care:

Furthermore, religion also plays a role in end-of-life care. Many religions have specific rituals and practices associated with death and dying. Nurses need to be respectful of these practices and ensure that they are followed as per the patient’s wishes.

Nurses need to have a good understanding of various religious beliefs and practices to provide culturally sensitive and holistic care to their patients. By respecting and accommodating religious beliefs, nurses can enhance the overall patient experience and promote better health outcomes.

Nursing history and the impact of wars

Wars have had a profound impact on the nursing profession, shaping its development and pushing the boundaries of what nursing can achieve. In times of conflict, nurses have often been at the forefront of providing care to the wounded and dying people.

nurse visiting to a soldier

Crimean War

The Crimean War, for example, marked a turning point in the history of nursing. It was during this war that Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses revolutionized the field, implementing sanitary measures and improving patient outcomes. The lessons learned during times of war have translated into advancements in medical care and have helped to establish nursing as a respected profession.

American Civil War

In the American Civil War, many nursing heroes emerged who served humanity in those difficult times voluntarily. Harriet Tubman served the sick and injured people of her race and was known as “The Moses of Her People”.

World War 1

When World War 1 started on 28 July 1914, many British, American, and French women participated voluntarily to provide their nursing services for their countries. Numerous new advancements were made during World War 1 such as infection control practices, use of anesthetic agents, use of prosthetics, and blood typing.

World War 2

In World War 2, an acute shortage of nurses was faced due to a large number of casualties. To fulfill the shortage of nurses Cadet Nurse Corps was established. The significance of auxiliary healthcare services was recognized because nursing aides, practical nurses, and technicians provided their tireless services under the supervision and instructions of trained nurses, they worked equally as nurses.

Societal attitudes towards nursing profession throughout the history

Societal attitudes towards this profession have fluctuated throughout the history of nursing, reflecting the changing perceptions of the role and importance of healthcare. In some eras, nursing was seen as a menial task performed by lower-class individuals. In others, it was regarded as a noble calling and a path to spiritual fulfillment. Today, nursing is recognized as a highly skilled and respected profession because nurses are playing a crucial role in the healthcare system. The shifting of societal attitudes towards nursing has mirrored the evolving understanding of the vital role nurses play in promoting health and well-being.

Starting as a low-status profession:

In the early days, nursing was often seen as a low-status profession and was primarily carried out by women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These early nurses were often viewed as being unskilled and were not given the respect or recognition they deserved.

Before the 19th century:

Before the 19th century, there was no formal recognition, institution, education, or social status of nursing. In 1844 Charles Dickens portrayed the nurse character Mrs. Sairey Gamp as a disreputable nurse in his book, who was always drunk, physically abused sick people, neglected the patients, and stole the valuables of people. This depiction of the nurse developed a negative attitude towards the nurses.

During the 19th century:

However, as healthcare practices advanced and the importance of nursing became more apparent, societal attitudes began to shift. During the 19th century, nursing started to gain recognition as a legitimate profession. This was largely due to the efforts of influential figures like Florence Nightingale, who championed the importance of proper nursing care. The images of “Angel of Mercy” and “Guardian Angel” gained significant recognition in the late 19th century due to the work of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.

In the 20th century:

In the 20th century, nursing continued to evolve and gain more respect within society. The establishment of nursing schools and the professionalization of the field helped to increase the status of nursing as a profession. Nurses were now seen as skilled and knowledgeable healthcare providers who played a crucial role in patient care. This shift in societal attitudes towards nursing was further reinforced by advancements in medical technology and the increasing complexity of healthcare.

Nursing today:

Today, nursing is widely regarded as a vital profession that encompasses a wide range of skills and responsibilities. Nurses are seen as key members of the healthcare team, working alongside doctors and other healthcare professionals to provide high-quality care to patients and nurses are now recognized for their dedication, compassion, and expertise to improving patient outcomes.

Notable nursing leaders and their contributions in the history of nursing

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

In the development of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is the most notable figure in the history of nursing who served in the Crimean War. She was titled as “Lady with the Lamp”. Florence was the first nurse to exert political pressure to implement public health policies. She is also known as the first nursing scientist and theorist for her work.

pictures of pioneer nurses

Clara Barton (1821-1912).

Barton was the lady who persuaded the American Congress to ratify the Treaty of Geneva to link the American Red Cross to the International Red Cross. She was the founder of the American Red Cross. In the American Civil War, she was responsible for organizing the nursing services.

Mary Mahoney (1845-1926).

Mahoney was the first African-American nurse who struggled for the equal rights and opportunities of African-American nurses in the history of nursing and succeeded in overcoming racial discrimination.

Read detailed article about: The Founders of Modern Nursing.

Linda Richards (1841-1930).

Richard is recognized as a pioneer worker in industrial and psychiatric nursing. She presented the idea that nurses should wear a uniform. She introduced the nurse’s notes and doctor’s orders. She introduced the concept of uniformity in the history of nursing.

Lillian Wald (1867-1940).

Wald was the founder of Public Health Nursing, she established the Henry Street Settlement. She worked for the social welfare and cultural education of people.

Lavinia Lloyd Dock (1858-1956).

Dock struggled for the right to vote for the women in America. She campaigned for the moment that the nursing profession must be led by nurses rather than physicians. Her contributions throughout the history of nursing made women of America stronger and more independent.

Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879-1966).

Margaret was a public health nurse. She was concerned about the large number of unwanted pregnancies in poor working ladies. She started her first birth control information clinic in America, she was the first nurse in the history of nursing who was imprisoned for that act.

Mary Breckinridge (1881–1965).

Breckinridge was the founder of Frontier Nursing Service in 1918. She contributed to distributing food, clothes, medicines, and other supplies to the rural areas of France by the American Committee after World War-1.

Recent trends and advancement in nursing profession

In recent decades, the nursing profession has undergone significant advancements and changes reflecting the evolving needs of society and advances in the healthcare industry such as the shift from home-based care to institutional settings, the development of specialized areas of nursing practice, and the integration of technology into nursing care. The development of new technologies, such as electronic health records and telemedicine, has transformed the way nurses deliver care. Additionally, there has been a shift towards a more holistic approach to healthcare, with nurses taking on expanded roles in health promotion, disease prevention, and patient education.

The increasing recognition of the importance of mental health has also led to the integration of psychiatric nursing into mainstream healthcare settings. These advancements and changes reflect the ongoing evolution of nursing as a profession and its commitment to providing high-quality, patient-centered care.


As we reflect on the history of nursing, it becomes clear that the profession has come a long way. From its humble beginnings as a sacred duty to its current status as a respected and vital healthcare profession, nursing has evolved to meet the changing needs of society. The contributions of women and men, the influence of religions, the impact of wars, and the dedication of nursing leaders have all played a role in shaping the profession into what it is today. As we look to the future, it is clear that nursing will continue to evolve, adapt, and innovate, ensuring that patients receive the highest quality of care.


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