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Nursing’s Past

Friday April 29, 2011
A view of an operating room at University Hospital in the 1940s. Notice the nurse handing the tool to the surgeon. Many University of Maryland School of Nursing students from this period recall their responsibilities included cleaning and sterilizing surgical tools, and making medications for patients.
Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Nursing Living History Museum
A view of an operating room at University Hospital in the 1940s. Notice the nurse handing the tool to the surgeon. Many University of Maryland School of Nursing students from this period recall their responsibilities included cleaning and sterilizing surgical tools, and making medications for patients. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Nursing Living History Museum
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It’s difficult to imagine what it was like to be a nurse in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when nurses used metal or glass hypodermic syringes. The process of administering medications with these syringes was not sterile. Nurses would clean the separate components of the syringe using several techniques, including passing the needle through a flame; soaking in or drawing through with alcohol or a carbolic acid solution; or boiling in a spoon of water over an alcohol lamp, according to the American Association for the History of Nursing, Wheat Ridge, Colo.

Information on museums and archives devoted to nursing history aren’t easy to find. However, such places do exist and provide rich stories, artifacts and documents about nursing’s past, says AAHN President Brigid Lusk, RN, PhD. “[M]any museums hold artifacts related to nursing history and thousands of archives store documents that can shed light on nursing practice and nurses themselves,” says Lusk, who is professor and chairwoman of the School of Nursing and Health Studies, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

“Nursing history is key to understanding the past, defining the present and influencing the future of nursing,” she says. “I can give several examples. Nursing history is foundational in formulating and interpreting today’s healthcare policies; nursing history informs current scholarship on nursing informatics, technology and innovations; and nursing history allows deeper understanding of today’s end-of-life and hospice nursing care. Thus, nursing history may be considered a tool to expand nurses’ thinking. It may also provide them with a sense of professional heritage and identity.”

As a professional membership organization, AAHN offers members the annual Nursing History Review, an annual nursing history conference, historical research grants and awards recognizing completed historical research. For nonmembers, AAHN’s website (aahn.org) provides resources, such as important dates in nursing history; a list of international nursing history sites; pictures and descriptions of nursing artifacts; U.S. archives; and more.

Nurses who want to dig deep into the profession’s history, however, might want to visit one of these places in person:


Photo of the University of Maryland School of Nursing class of 1904. The early School of Nursing classes were much smaller than today. Many alumni remember fondly the camaraderie built by living in the School of Nursing dormitory, Parson’s Hall, and the smaller class sizes where everyone knew each other. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Nursing Living History Museum
University of Maryland School of Nursing Living History Museum

655 W. Lombard St., Second Floor • Baltimore, MD 21201-1579 • 410-706-2822 • nursing.umaryland.edu/museum

According to curator Dan Caughey, MA, while the University of Maryland School of Nursing’s past and contributions to nursing are featured in the museum’s permanent exhibit, visitors also learn, in general, about how the profession has changed over the past 130 years.

A section of the museum devoted to nursing practice features private duty nursing, which represented a large percentage of nurses from the 1880s to 1930s, according to Caughey. To save money, many hospitals would use student nurses in their training schools, as opposed to hiring more seasoned nurses who had graduated from a program and would have to be paid more. Many graduating nurses instead found work caring for patients in their homes.

“Private duty nurses were able to have more autonomy. They could, in many cases, prescribe medicine and do a lot ... that we would associate with doctors today,” Caughey says.

The museum offers an exhibit devoted to military nursing, with such items as an artillery shell turned into a flower vase by a graduate who served during World War I, portable military nurses’ kit donated by a School of Nursing alumni in World War II, and war medals donated by the founder of the School of Nursing, Louisa Parsons, a British nurse serving with the British army in Africa in the 1880s.

The museum’s exhibit of nursing uniforms is perhaps the most popular for visitors, Caughey says. “We have four nursing uniforms from the hospital setting and ... a military nurse’s uniform,” he says. “We display them in a row, chronologically, so you can see society’s changing viewpoints on what a nurse should look like and also women’s fight for greater equality.”

The research section uses archives and artifacts to show a trajectory of nursing research history, and the University of Maryland’s contributions to that research.
The museum also highlights a few nurses, including the first African American to attend the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Esther McCready. While McCready graduated in 1953, she had to sue to gain admittance to the school. Today, McCready is one of the museum’s docents.

Museum of Nursing History at Friends Hospital

4641 Roosevelt Blvd. • Philadelphia, PA. 19124-2399 • 215.831.7819 • nursinghistory.org

Among this museum’s featured exhibits: a case of some 60 or 70 nursing caps. Nurses stopped wearing the caps, which were associated with diploma schools, around the 1960s when the diploma schools started to close. The museum also has a collection of about 50 nursing pins and two cases with mannequins wearing life-sized nursing uniforms.

“[One case features] public health nurse uniforms from the late 1890s. They wore a straw hat and had a lace collar. They had cuffs, also,” says the museum’s president, Sandra Davis, RN, EdD.

Private-duty nursing items are featured, including syringe kits, a lancing kit and a pocket-size book about medications. These were items nurses received to take with them into patients’ homes after they graduated from diploma schools in the 1920s.
The museum is home to an enlarged duplicate of a letter from Florence Nightingale to Alice Fischer, who became the first nursing superintendent of Philadelphia General Hospital.

“When the Philadelphia General Hospital decided to start a school of nursing to train nurses to work there, they wrote to Florence Nightingale for a recommendation, and she recommended Alice Fischer, who had been a student of hers and successfully started nursing schools in England,” Davis says. “She wrote this letter to Fischer at Christmastime, in 1879, and it’s a wonderful letter. It’s in Ms. Nightingale’s writing. Reading it, you get a real sense of her caring.”

The museum tells the stories of other great nurses in history, including Clara Maass, who died of yellow fever while volunteering as part of a research team in Panama looking for a vaccine for malaria, and Lt. Annie G. Fox, a Purple Heart recipient in World War II for her service at Pearl Harbor.

Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing

University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing • Suite 2U • Claire M. Fagin Hall
418 Curie Blvd. • Philadelphia, PA 19104-4217 • 215.898.4502 • www.nursing.upenn.edu/history/Pages/default


The center is a repository for historical nursing documents, according to Barbra Mann Wall, RN, PhD, FAAN, associate director of the center and associate professor at the university. The center contains archival and manuscript material, along with a library of about 2,000 books, monographs and other printed materials. Topics include: international nursing; nursing and public policy; home-based nursing; visiting nurse associations; nursing in epidemics and war; nursing ethics; nursing for specific populations; and more.

“We have scholars from all over the world who come study,” Wall says.
These documents cannot be accessed online. Rather, people have to physically visit the center to study, Wall says. However, the center recently received a grant to digitalize its many historic photographs, so those will be available online.

The Barbara Bates center awards three fellowships in nursing history. “People apply for them, and if they win the award, we give them money to come and study in our archives,” Wall says. “Ours is probably the largest such [archive]. University of Virginia also has one. We all collaborate.”

“History gives nurses an identity. Our students thoroughly enjoy studying about the early students and early schools of nursing, [as well as] the early nursing leaders, what they were trying to instill in a new profession in the early 20th century, and why that was important. Studying nursing history helps us to look at the influence of race, class, gender and religion on the profession, so we can understand all the influences on what we are today.”

Lisette Hilton is a freelance writer.


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