A Nursing Memo to You …From 1860

by Tera Tuten on November 27, 2012

Ever wonder – between the working conditions, technology, and knowledge of medical science – if there was ever anything good about the ‘good ol’ days’ of nursing?

Despite a lack of regulation, sanitary conditions, and other drawbacks, the early days (and I mean really early days) of nursing might be able to teach us a lesson or two when it comes to the present day.
For example:

Lesson 1: Focus on what nursing is (and not what it isn’t)

I recently thumbed-through Florence Nightingale’s “Notes on Nursing: What it is and what it is not” and found that this Circa-1859 work was surprisingly forward-thinking in its outlook on nursing and what its author thought nursing should be.

Among other things, this 150+year-old book still holds useful insight on such contemporary issues as:

  • leadership and delegation
  • professionalism with coworkers and patients
  • diversity and variety
  • fostering positive environments for recovery
  • and inclusion/equality

Lesson 2: Respect for nursing

While nurses in the U.S. originally trained to report to doctors, a growing number of nurses, PhD nurses, nurse practitioners, and nursing faculty here and in other countries are breaking the stigma as being seen as lesser than doctors.

The autonomous leadership roles the first modern nurses took on near the battlefield in the Crimean and other wars of the 1850s and 60s, is another example of the commanding start nursing got off to as a profession, and the respect it should command today.

Lesson 3: Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Part of the original Nightingale Pledge states, “I solemnly pledge myself …To pass my life in purity…” Though written in 1893, the above passage from this modified “Hippocratic Oath” reminds us of what we so rarely remember:

That before we can help others, we need to make sure that we are healthy – ourselves leading a healthful life as an example to patients and doctors and as the primary means staying in shape to empower others to do the same.

Lesson 4: The best offense is a good defense

Nurses of the 1860s, 70s, 80s, and 90s preached holistic health and preventative medicine.

While prioritizing such things now may seem unsustainable, taking steps towards prevention of the most common major aliments could actually save time, money, and human resources.

Memo from the 1800s

Until the 1970’s, the Nightingale Pledge was “solemnly recited” at graduation or ‘Pinning ceremonies’ across North America, but has been dropped in recent decades (because of its reference to loyalty to physicians) or substantially altered.

While nursing in the U.S. and other countries has grown beyond the doctor-nurse relationship, many of the aspirations and promises cited in the Nightingale Pledge and other relics from the genesis of modern nursing still serve as worthwhile lessons for success in the 21st Century.


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