Happy Nurses Week: A Brief History of Nursing

A Look Back: The History of Nurses Week

By Katelynne Shepard, contributor

The World Health Organization named 2020 the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, spearheading a year-long effort to show nurses the appreciation and recognition they deserve and hopefully encourage others to join this critical profession. While the basic principles of supporting doctors and providing quality patient care have remained the same, what the nursing profession looks like has changed a lot from its beginning to modern times.

Nurses Week 2020 — which runs from May 6 to May 12 — is the perfect time to learn more about how this happened. But you don't have to wait until that week to understand your roots as an RN. Find out how nursing started and where it is today in this brief history of nursing.

History of nursing

The 1800s

While people were doing nursing work and assisting doctors in providing healthcare services before this time, the nursing profession officially found its footing in the 1800s. In 1839, Dr. Joseph Warren — a pioneer in training women to provide maternity and postpartum nursing care and the founder of the Nurse Society — published the book The Nurse's Guide Containing a Series of Instruction to Females Who Wish to Engage in the Important Business of Nursing Mother and Child in the Lying-In Chamber. Every member of the Nurse Society received a copy, and it was considered the first real nursing textbook of its time.

Florence Nightingale

In the mid-1800s, Florence Nightingale entered the picture, and she has long been considered the founder of the nursing profession as we see it today. She helped bring nursing care to British soldiers in 1854 and later created nursing education programs centered around the Nightingale Principles. These were Nightingale's ideas on how nurses should act and how to provide the basic tenets of patient care.

In the United States, the demand for nurses was also increasing with the Civil War. After the war showed the importance of quality nursing care, several nurse education programs were established in the United States at hospitals such as The New England Hospital for Women and Children and the Women's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The 1900s

Just before the turn of the century, nurses banded together to create the Associated Alumnae of the United States and the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses, which later became the American Nurses Association and the National League of Nursing Education, respectively.

World War I

Much like the U.S. Civil War of the previous century, the first World War put a spotlight on nursing, with the Red Cross recruiting more than 22,000 nurses between 1917-1919 in the United States alone. While the leaders originally tried to keep nurses from the front lines, it didn't take long for them to realize that the nurses were more valuable closer to the battlefronts where they could tend to patients more quickly.

World War II

In the second World War, nurses played an even bigger role in helping save troops' lives, working in combat situations and delivering care under fire. Close to 60,000 nurses worked in the U.S. Army Corps during World War II. During this time, the nursing profession advanced greatly in its understanding of issues such as extensive blood loss and shock, and it's estimated that only around 4% of American soldiers who were able to get medical treatment in the field died thanks to the nurses' work.

After the wars ended, nurses continued to provide valuable medical care and began to take on more responsibilities when it came to patient care in hospitals. Technological advances in the late 1900s and the division of nursing into specialties such as pediatric, maternity, cardiac care and intensive care increased demand for nurses and made nursing education programs more accessible.

The 21st Century and beyond

While nursing in the 21st Century is arguably just getting started and is likely to change tremendously over the next 80 years, so far the focus seems to be on navigating increasing patient-to-nurse ratios, telehealth and advanced nursing practices, including nurse practitioners. Today's nurses have to be comfortable with a variety of electronic health record programs and ever-changing technology when it comes to patient care, but travel nursing is also a trend that seems to be making its mark on 21st Century nursing.

Nursing shortages and an aging Baby Boomer population are contributing to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' projected 12% growth for nursing from 2018 to 2028. If you're interested in getting started in the nursing profession or are ready to expand your nursing horizons, there's never been a better time to consider jumping into the travel nursing trend. Find your next position when you browse's open job board.




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