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I’ve written before in this blog about images of nursing, elsewhere I’ve touched on nursing heroes and icons, and a bit of nursing history.  I’ve been considering for a while the ‘famous names’ of nursing from an historical perspective, and wondering why there aren’t rather more.  I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues about it – this lack of a UK roll-call of nurses who have contributed significantly to nursing practice, research and education and also to nursing’s image and status in a positive way.

When I Google ‘famous nurses’ I get a list of mostly American women (nurses in the USA do seem to do celebration rather better than here at home).  The UK representatives on the lists are the expected ones – Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, and occasionally Edith Cavell.   Nineteenth century women, two of whom were – arguably in my view – not really nurses as we recognise the term today although the contribution of both is undoubted,  and one who is recognised for her heroism and war-time subterfuge rather than her nursing skill.  Ethel Bedford-Fenwick is beginning to be recognised for her work on registration and she crops up occasionally in searches, but beyond the 19th and very early 20th century there is no-one clearly identified – and widely recognised – as having a significant impact on the development of the profession.   Yes, individual nurses can maybe suggest one or two who, to their mind, made a difference, but there is no formal recognition.  In fact, there is no list even of potential contenders.

This made me wonder how nursing students are taught about the history of the profession, and if that history teaching falters in terms of the contribution of individuals beyond 1918 (Nursing faculty – there’s a survey coming your way…).  I suspect that when we formally research nursing history we probably do quite well at 19th century women, and nursing in time of war.  Neither of which help to move us on more generally from the stereotypes/archetypes that give us only 19th century women as our icons.

So, I’m thinking of embarking on a piece of work to correct this a little.   I want to find out who were the nurses who made a significant impact on UK nursing practice, education or research, or the improved status or development of the profession between, say, 1920 and 1980 (or thereabouts).   A quick literature review reveals very little serious work on this subject in this period.   I’m not interested in later than that – there has to have been enough time passed for their achievements to have been consolidated and accepted.   For example who were the nursing ‘firsts’?  The first PhD in Nursing?  The first Professor of Nursing?  Who’s innovations in practice led to their name becoming a byword for a particular intervention or group of interventions?  Who was influential in nursing becoming an academic subject?  Who influenced professionalisation?  Who wrote the first undergraduate degree programme?  Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know?  Wouldn’t it be brilliant to hear the stories of these nurses?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could hold up half a dozen or so 20th century nurses as significant contributors?  Promote them nationally and internationally?  Get them widely recognised?  Taught in schools?  Move the iconography and therefore the image of nursing away from the 19th Century?

I could sit here and find all this out for myself – it’s a PhD waiting to happen really, but I’m old and don’t have the time or the inclination to sign up to a million years of part-time study.   I want to crowd-source possibilities.   Then the research would need to start on whether the suggestions are worthy of making the cut or not.  It’s exciting isn’t it?   Do you want to help?  Let’s add a bit to nursing’s history.

Update a few hours later: Give me time to get organised and now I know there’s interest, I’ll be on it!

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