Nurses and patients in a late 19th century military hospital stock illustration

History of a Nurse

May 17, 2022

The definition of a nurse is one who cares for the sick or infirm, particularly in a hospital. But did you know that nurses have existed since the beginning of time? That’s right. Nursing is one of the world’s oldest professions. 

If you are thinking of becoming a nurse, sit back and read a tale about nursing that, as a profession, has evolved through the years to the current day. We begin our story in ancient times when becoming a nurse wasn't something you chose; the role of caregiver was instead decided for you. 

The Ancient Role of Nurse as Caregiver 

Ancient societies did many things differently. Deciding who would be a caregiver among tribes was no different. Take the Zuni tribe for example. The Zuni was a gathering of Native Americans that existed in the Southwest United States for thousands of years. The elders of the Zuni would make the decision for individuals to become nurses even before they had the ability to make that choice. They would mark babies as future nurses or caregivers if they were born with part of the placenta covering their face.

In many societies throughout the ancient world, nurses were mainly female, largely due to the fact that women traditionally provided nurturance to infants of their own. The word nurse itself is derived from the Latin word “nutrire,” which means ‘to suckle’, naturally referring to women who breastfeed.

Because there were no schools that taught nursing thousands of years ago, female caregivers would learn their trade through oral tradition, whereby the lessons were passed down through the generations.

Nurses in Early Christianity 

The first Christian nurse was a woman known as Phoebe, and there is a reference to her in Romans 16:1. History tells us that during the early years of the Christian Church. St Paul sent a deaconess by the name of Phoebe to Rome as the world’s first visiting nurse.

Nurses Existed During the Expansion of the Roman Empire 

History also tells us that nurses existed in 300 A.D., during the height of the Roman empire. Nurses back then assisted doctors with care in newly created hospitals which were placed in every town under the empire’s rule.

Modern Nurses in Recorded History 

The first mention of the modern nurse in history books stretches back to the mid-19th century, when a nurse by the name of Florence Nightingale, who was also referred to as “the lady with the lamp,” was crowned with being the founder of modern nursing.

Nightingale was seen as someone who bucked social norms. She was born to wealthy British parents, who objected to her becoming a nurse, as did the rest of society. Back then, the public didn’t much appreciate the idea of a woman nursing strangers. But Nightingale saw the profession of nursing as an exciting opportunity for all women. She believed her peers and women who came after her could use their education and knowledge of science to improve patient care while becoming independent.

Nightingale had a hand in dramatically reducing the mortality rate of British soldiers during the Crimean War in 1854. Naturally, the public became impressed with her bravery and caregiving abilities, which was enough to convince the entire Western world that educated nurses were deserving of dignity and value.

Once she returned to England, Nightingale launched nurse educational programs in a variety of British hospitals. These schools were organized around a specific set of ideas regarding how nurses should be educated, typically referred to as the Nightingale Principles and developed by Nightingale herself.

Realizing how important good nursing care is to the well-being of patients, and following in the footsteps of luminaries like Nightingale, some physicians started courses for those interested in becoming a nurse. To provide one example, in 1798, a physician from New York named Valentine Seaman organized an early course of lectures for nurses who cared for maternity patients.

A Nursing Program is Born in the 19th Century 

The Nurse Society of Philadelphia, an early 19th-century program, trained women in terms of caring for other mothers throughout childbirth and the postpartum period. The founder, Dr. Joseph Warrington, created a book with the title: The Nurse’s Guide Containing a Series of Instruction to Females who wish to Engage in the Important Business of Nursing Mother and Child in the Lying-In Chamber​.

In this book, instructions were provided for women who wanted to know more about how to pursue nursing as an occupation.

Every Nurse Society received a copy of this book, which represents an early example of a nursing practice text. Approximately 50 nurses were employed by the Nurse Society between 1839 and 1850, establishing an early practice of engaging nurses in the care of patients in the home.

Nurses During the American Civil War

The nursing profession continued to evolve during the American Civil War. With fighting at its peak among factions in the Northern and Southern United States, the wives of soldiers – called mistresses – began trailing the armies. These nurses tended to sick troops, treating all sorts of diseases from typhoid and pneumonia to diarrhea/dysentery and malaria.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke is one notable nursing volunteer from that time. Bickerdyke was not married to a soldier. However, she did accompany the army of Union General William T. Sherman. Bickedyke’s notoriety blossomed following the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee in 1863 when the nurse Sherman cared for 2,000 troops all by lonesome.

With illness rampant during the Civil War, the Northern and Southern armies took action by establishing temporary military hospital tents. It was in these makeshift medical facilities that southern women like Captain Sally Tompkins and Phoebe Levy Pember supervised entire teams of nurses who provided treatment to the ailing troops.

Many of the volunteer nurses were in fact female slaves, and they helped save a considerable number of lives. As can be expected, respect for the nursing profession swelled among the American population as the Civil War ended. The nursing profession developed quickly from that point forward.

The Nursing Profession Expanded with Formal Education 

One drastic change the nursing profession adopted was the advent of formal education. The caring for the sick was traditionally undertaken within the home, whereby it fell upon the responsibility of neighbors, friends, and family with knowledge of healing practices to care for the sick or infirm.

That was until the late 19th century when the first training programs opened at hospitals around the country. Student nurses could receive clinical instruction in exchange for providing care to patients in need.

During this time, nurses assisted hospitals with making enormous improvements in terms of both quality of care and safety. Medical care also became more humanized than at any other time in the past.

Nursing Universities and Colleges Open Across the United States 

Patients' needs continued to become more complex by the second half of the 20th century, leading to the need for even more skilled nursing professionals. Training for nurses then moved from hospitals to universities and colleges.

This led to the opening of Texas Woman’s University in 1950, which offered the state’s first nationally-accredited nursing program. It is also considered one of the oldest universities in Texas. Nursing as a profession exploded thereafter with over 170 nursing programs popping up throughout the country by the year 1960.

Today, there are over 2,600 nursing schools in the United States. These colleges and universities offer nursing education programs at all three levels – undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate.

The Nursing Profession Continues to Grow Even Today

Every year, nurse training continues to evolve in line with growing patient needs. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) made a recommendation in 2010 to manage the growing and increasingly complex needs of patients. They deemed that at least 80% of RNs (registered nurses) should hold a bachelor’s degree by the year 2020. IOM also called for the number of doctorate-prepared nurses to double.

This standard was also adopted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The AACN deemed that all RNs should hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in the field of nursing.

Colleges and universities around the country have responded by increasing the capacity of their four-year nursing programs. Enrollment in registered nurse-to-baccalaureate degree programs has increased by 80% since 2010.

U.S.-based nursing schools have also placed greater emphasis on academic progression. For instance, the AACN urges nurses to continue their education past entry-level courses to the graduate and postgraduate programs, allowing nurses to tend to the demand for advanced practice registered nurses.

Nurses Adopt a Wide Range of Responsibilities 

Unlike the previous generations of nurses, the professionals working in the field today have a broad scope of duties. When you become a modern-day nurse, you are no longer seen as a mere caretaker. To become a successful modern nurse, you need a collective mix of skill and good judgment.

Changes to nursing education and training have helped to broaden the scope of a modern nurse’s responsibilities. Right now, this country has around 4.2 million nurses, and each one is tasked with providing patient care, leading healthcare teams, and serving as a patient advocate. Nurses must also conduct research on how to improve patient care.

Complex Patient Needs Lead to More Advanced Nursing Roles  

The nursing practitioner is one field that is drastically different than in decades past. NPs offer the same services as many physicians. This role of advanced practice registered nurse began in the year 1965 following the passage of programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which gave low-income individuals over the age of 65 access to much-needed health care.

As you can imagine, the demand for nurses grew even further after Medicare and Medicaid passed, which led to even further educational opportunities for both doctors and nurses. This need helped birth the role of the nurse practitioner, which helps doctors diagnose and treat illnesses.

Nurses Can Specialize in A Myriad of Important Fields 

Today, nurses have the ability to practice in many areas of specialization. Renal care, oncology, dermatology, and emergency medical services are only a few examples of nursing specializations. The most coveted specialties fall under the umbrella of advanced practice registered nursing.

To become an advanced practice registered nurse, you must hold a minimum of a master’s degree and practice as a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, nurse anesthetist, or clinical nurse specialist.

The Future of Nursing

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that, by 2028, the roles of nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists will grow by 26%. That’s almost 6 times the average for all other occupations!

Employment prospects for nurse practitioners look even brighter because of the current shortage of physicians coupled with the growing population of aging adults. This lack of care and expansion of patient needs shows there is a serious deficit of primary care providers. However, the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) firmly believes that nurse practitioners are best positioned to fill the caregiver void. These advanced care nurses are qualified to provide primary care services either independently or in collaboration with other medical professionals.

Nurse practitioners can specialize in many different areas. One example is the family nurse practitioner (FNP), who is tasked with treating patients of all ages. FNPs focus on disease prevention, health promotion, and the treatment of a vast number of illnesses. In the U.S. today, nearly 67% of nurse practitioners are certified FNPs.

The Importance of Nursing as a Career Choice 

As you can see, the nursing field has developed and changed considerably over the years. Thanks to comprehensive training, nurses can assume a wide range of responsibilities in greater areas of health care. Even as their duties expand, nurses continue to focus on the highest quality care.

Nurses today have the potential to enact sweeping improvements to the health care system in our country, according to the IOM. But to be the change you want to see in the world, you must have a commitment to lifelong learning.

What does the future of nursing hold? That’s difficult to determine. However, nurses can continue to evolve with the industry by focusing on academic progression.

That means if you are a nurse with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, you might want to consider pursuing a master’s degree. Obtaining a graduate-level education is a key avenue for becoming proficient in all areas the IOM deems critical, which include teamwork, research, and leadership.

As the need for qualified nurses continues to expand, as patient needs grow, and with the field of nursing being so rewarding, yet challenging, the time is now to become a nurse professional. 

As you now see, you will be pursuing a nursing career that is as old as recorded time, and the need for qualified nurses is as strong as ever.

If you are interested in working in this rewarding yet challenging field, getting the right education is a must, so it makes sense to start with ProLink Staffing. We can start you on the path to becoming the best nursing professional you can be.

Previous   Next

Apply for Your Next Position

Let ProLink take the stress out of your job search. Submit your resume and a recruiter will connect with you to guide the entire process.