find nursing schools near you

How Nursing Became A Profession

Healthcare has played an important role in human civilization, and for thousands of years, humans have understood the importance of caring for the sick, wounded, and most vulnerable in society.

Nursing, however, is more of a recent invention.

The History of Nursing

Registered nurses, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, student nurses, and everyone else involved with this profession owes their knowledge, code of ethics, and techniques to a handful of women, as well as thousands of years of medical history.

The Nursing Profession in the Ancient World

If you were suffering from an illness in ancient Greece, you went to see a doctor. You were treated for that illness and then sent on your way.

In many ways, those ancient practices are not too different from our own, and the ancient Greeks actually laid the foundations for modern healthcare.

Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia also had extensive healthcare systems, and these predate the ones that existed in Greece. The only reason they're not talked about as much is that their record-keeping wasn't as diligent as the Greeks and very few texts have survived.

The famously unreliable Greek historian, Herodotus, said of the Babylonians "They bring out all their sick into the streets, for they have no regular doctors. People that come along offer the sick man advice, either from what they personally have found to cure such a complaint, or what they have known someone else to be cured by. No one is allowed to pass by a sick person without asking him what ails him."

In reality, the Babylonians did have places of healing, and these had existed for several millennia before Herodotus appeared to do a spot of medical tourism. They were just a little different from what he was used to, as most were closely tied to religion.

For most of early history, healthcare and religion went hand-in-hand. Healers were also priests and shamans, and the place you went to get medical advice was the same place you prayed and worshipped.

But by the time of the ancient Greeks, there was a clear distinction between the medical and the religious (the Hippocratic Oath did call upon "gods and goddesses", but the same could be said for the Nightingale Pledge, which came nearly 2500 years later).

There were hospitals in the ancient world and these hospitals had beds for sick patients and doctors to care for them. Those doctors were required to abide by a certain code of ethics (from the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi in 1700 BCE to the Hippocratic Oath a thousand years later) and they used rudimentary tools to diagnose and treat disease.

Unfortunately, we don't have a great deal of information concerning nursing in the ancient world. Medical texts often concerned themselves more with the role of doctors, shamans, gods, and evil entities, as well as pharmaceuticals.

However, that began to change during the early days of Christianity, when religious practitioners (often women) were encouraged to tend to the needs of the sick. They weren't nurses in the modern sense, though, as they lacked the medical training required of modern nurses.

The Byzantines were integral in establishing what it meant to be a nurse during the first few centuries of the first millennium AD. Their hospitals contained doctors, nurses, and orderlies, all of whom had very specific duties.

The Nursing Profession in Medieval Europe

The medieval health care system, like the ones that had gone before, was closely tied to religion. Many healers worked out of monasteries, mosques, and temples, and they provided care according to religious doctrines.

Nurses and other health care professionals assisted the sick, poor, and dying, and there were also doctors and nurses tasked with caring for wounded soldiers.

The Middle Ages were a time of great strife, one where disease and war were rampant and medical science advanced very slowly, but the nursing profession continued to take shape.

Florence Nightingale and the Modern History of Nursing

Florence Nightingale is credited with inventing modern nursing. Known as the "Lady with the Lamp", the British nurse published the book Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not in 1859.

The 76-page book provided the basis for modern nursing, highlighting areas of care, as well as nursing ethics. Nightingale wrote about the importance of proper heating and ventilation, as well as nutrition, calm, and cleanliness. She spoke about patient observation, bedding preparation, and more—all things that are second nature to modern nurses.

Florence Nightingale learned about patient care while working as a nurse during the Crimean war. She tended to the sick and wounded and also served as an educator to other nurses.

Nightingale shed light on the importance of the nursing profession and inspired the creation of many hospitals throughout the British Empire. Nurses were then exported to countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, where they tended to wounded soldiers in Britain's rapidly expanding territories.

The Development of Modern Nursing

The next major leap for the nursing profession came with Lystra Gretter.

Gretter was born in Bayfield, Ontario, in 1858 and was raised in North Carolina. As an adult, she attended the Buffalo General Hospital Training School for Nurses and graduated with honors.

In 1893, Gretter worked with the Committee for the Farrand Training School for Nurses to create the Nightingale Pledge.

The pledge was a code of ethics based on the Hippocratic Oath, declaring that nurses should always act for the benefit of the patient and should never do them harm.

The Nightingale Pledge would later be used by the American Nurses Association (ANA) for the Code of Ethics for Nurses, something that all American nurses are required to learn and follow. It's how Lystra Gretter is best remembered, but she actually made many significant reforms during her career.

She influenced the length of nursing programs across the United States and also established free infant care and maternity clinics, as well as tuberculosis hospitals.

Summary: The History of the Nursing Profession

The origins of nursing can be traced back thousands of years, but nursing as we know it today is much more recent. It's a profession that was shaped by women like Florence Nightingale and Lystra Gretter, as well as the millions of nurses who were trained, educated, or influenced by them.

find nursing schools near you

find nursing schools near you