The Nurse: Women Nurses in the Civil War, part four

Part four in a series

Florence NightengaleThe definition of “nurse” in John Daly’s Professional Nursing: Concepts, Issues and Challenges is “Nursing is a societally mandated, socially constructed practice profession existing to serve a public that has certain expectations of nurses and nursing action.”

In Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945, Reverby explains that nurses have historically performed what is considered “woman’s work,” and have always dealt with the tension between the duty and desire to care for others and the right to control and define this activity. She also agrees with Daly in that nursing took ideological, cultural and structure forms of constraint.

Both Reverby and Starr concurred that prior to the 1860s, the hospital was not a central institution that provided medical care. The hospital was considered a social-welfare institution for the homeless and needy. The link between hospitals and nursing did not occur until the late 1800s.

Reverby further explained that in antebellum American, nursing was expected as part of a woman’s duty to her family or community.  This expectation was multiplied for the plantation mistress of the Old South.  Since there were fewer physicians, and those who were physicians were of minimal quality, the mistress cared for her own family as well as for the slaves her family owned. She could purchase medical products, but in most cases, she would follow what was known as a “receipt book,” a type of recipe book that not only provided instructions on how to prepare food, but also recipes for making medicine. According to Athea T. Davis, in her 1999 work, Early Black American Leaders in Nursing: Architects for Integration, although the plantation mistress was credited with providing nursing to both her family and her slaves, it was really the black female household slave who nursed both her owner’s family as well as the African American slaves. In the southern cities, African American women usually served as midwives and nurses for both the whites and the blacks.

Daly argues that many of nursing’s current dilemmas are a result of Florence Nightingale from the 1850s. Nightingale professed that “every woman is a nurse,” and it is a calling rather than a profession.  She further believed that women could do more for patients as nurses than as doctors, and women should nurse, but remain within the domestic sphere.  Daly further states that “the discipline of nursing has been since its invention by Florence Nightingale, a work in progress.”  He further notes that “even in today’s nursing, the definition of nurse is still blurred and unclear. Based upon one’s perspective, the term nurse varies in definition, the role of, and whether the nurse is subordinate or independent.”


John Daly, et al, Professional Nursing: Concepts, Issues, and Challenges, New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2005.

Athea T. Davis, Early Black American Leaders in Nursing: Architects for Integration and Equality, Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 1999).

Ann Giesberg, Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women’s Politics in Transition, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000).

Susan M. Reverby, Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, (New York: Basic Books, 1980).

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