The History of Nursing

It could be said that nursing is as old as mankind since people have always needed nursing care when ill or wounded. The word nurse is derived from the Anglo-French nurice and the Latin nutrica, both of which mean nourish. This is exactly what nurses have always done.

The common belief is that nursing has always been a feminine occupation with males entering the field in recent years, but this is not the case. During the Middle Ages, nurses were mostly untrained women who helped deliver babies or were wet nurses. Nuns had more training and cared for the sick. However, by the 13th through the 16th centuries, religious orders felt as if it was their duty to care for the physical needs of people as well as their spiritual needs and formed brotherhoods to carry out this mission. In 1259, the Alexian Brothers started the ministry of caring for the sick and hungry, and they are still in existence today in many countries, including the United States. The Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God was formed in Spain in 1550. From 1550 through 1614, Saint Camillus de Lellis cared for the sick and dying at St. James’ Hospital in Rome. It was not until 1633 when Saint Vincent de Paul founded the Daughter of Charity that women began to play a larger role in organized nursing. In 1645, Jeanne Mance, a nurse from France, established the Hotel-Dieu de Montreal in Canada, the first hospital in North America.

By the 18th century, the United States was beginning to realize the need for organized nursing services. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond opened Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital. It served the poor and homeless in Philadelphia. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Congress recruited nurses to care for the sick and wounded. They requested one nurse for every 10 patients.

Throughout the years, wars have increased the need for nurses and have had a great influence on the evolution of nursing. Florence Nightingale, who is widely regarded as the mother of modern nursing, made her greatest impact when she served in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856. Her sanitation efforts dropped the mortality rate dramatically. She went on to establish the Florence Nightingale School for Nurses in London. Between 1861 and 1865, over 2000 nurses served in the Civil War, some on the front lines. Many of these nurses wrote of their war experiences.

As the United States continued to see the need for nursing education, the first training school was opened 1872 at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Its first graduate was Linda Richards, the first American trained nurse. After that, more and more hospitals opened nursing schools. Unfortunately, in many of the schools, the training consisted of very little book learning, and many times the students were exploited as free labor. Contrary to the autonomous Nightingale schools, nursing was under the control of medicine.

By the 1970s, the three-year, hospital-based diploma schools were starting to be replaced by two-year associate degree programs at technical schools or by four-year Bachelor of Science degree programs at universities. These schools provide the academic curricula and are affiliated with hospitals for clinical training. As the need for higher education in nursing is growing, universities also are offering master’s and doctorate programs.

The following nursing timeline shows how world events and famous nurses influenced nursing history and paved the way for modern nursing practice.

  • 1751 – The first hospital was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • 1775 to 1783 – Nurses were recruited to care for the wounded under the command of George Washington.
  • 1783 – James Derham used his earnings from nursing to buy his freedom from slavery.
  • 1841Dorothea Dix advocated for the mentally ill and established mental institutions.
  • 1853 to 1856 – Florence Nightingale served in the Crimean War and set up a holistic system of nursing.
  • 1859Notes On Nursing by Florence Nightingale was published. It was one of the first nursing manuals ever written.
  • 1860 – The Florence Nightingale School of Nursing was opened in London.
  • 1861 – Nurses began to wear uniforms.
  • 1861 to 1865 – During the Civil War, over 2,000 nurses cared for injured and ill soldiers.
  • 1865 – Sojourner Truth cared for injured African-American soldiers in Washington, D.C. Her sanitation practices reduced infections, and she taught other nurses her principles.
  • 1873 – Linda Richards, the first American trained nurse, graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children School of Nursing.
  • 1879Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African-American trained nurse, graduated from the New England Hospital School of Nursing.
  • 1881Clara Barton established the American Red Cross.
  • 1893Lillian Wald founded the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.
  • 1900 – The first issue of the American Journal of Nursing was published.
  • 1901 – New Zealand began requiring registration for nurses.
  • 1902 – Ellen Dougherty from New Zealand became the first registered nurse in the world.
  • 1902 – Lina Rogers Struthers was hired as the first public school nurse.
  • 1908 – Congress established the United States Naval Nursing Corps.
  • 1908 – The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was established. It merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951.
  • 1914 to 1918 – Nurses from the U.S. Navy Nursing Corps and the American Red Cross served in World War I.
  • 1917Margaret Sanger established the National Birth Control League that later became Planned Parenthood.
  • 1925 – The Frontier Nursing Service was started by Mary Breckinridge.
  • 1939 to 1945 – Over 59,000 American nurses served in World War II.
  • 1950 – The first intensive care units were established and created the specialty of critical care nursing.
  • 1956Columbia University School of Nursing offered the first master’s program for nurses.
  • 1959 to 1975 – Over 5,000 nurses served during the war.
  • 1965 – The University of Colorado established the first nurse practitioner program.
  • 1967Dame Cicely Saunders started the first hospice in London and provided the foundation for care of the terminally ill.
  • 1972Eddie Bernice Johnson was the first registered nurse elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • 1979Case Western Reserve University started the first doctoral program for nurses.
  • 1990 – Nursing uniforms become more casual. Nurses in hospital settings began to wear “scrubs”.
  • 2009 – The Carnegie Foundation released the results of Educating Nurses: A Call for Radical Transformation , a study of nursing education.
  • 2010 – The Institute for the Future of Nursing released recommendations for improved health care.

Nursing in the past laid the framework for the common purpose of health and well-being of individuals and communities. Nursing theories and processes have changed over the years, but the goal of nursing today remains the same.

Nursing History Resources