Rewriting Nursing History - Again?

Article excerpt

In the late 1970s, when I first began to gather together the authors whose essays would later appear in Rewriting Nursing History,1 I found myself among others who experienced the same kinds of dissatisfactions with the history of nursing that I did. With the arrogance of the young, we believed we were at the cutting edge, at the start of something new. The judgments of nurse historians have been kind; they seem to have confirmed us in the passions we displayed. Yet the themes, research designs, and methods that are in place today were simply not visible on the horizon. And perhaps it is quite right that that is so.

A critical reflection on what has transpired over the intervening years is an appropriate topic for this Monica Baly Memorial Lecture. At the time that I entered the world of nursing history in the United Kingdom, and for many years after that, Monica Baly was an indomitable figure. The wide-ranging arguments of her Nursing and Social Change were well known and stood alongside her standard text on district nursing, An Approach to District Nursing. There were what Sioban Nelson has called the "gentle corrections" to the existing canon in her book Florence Nightingale and the Nursing Legacy and a continuing array of articles and chapters came during the years thereafter.2 It was Monica Baly who recorded the story of the re-emergence of nursing history of which Reuniting Nursing History was a part. Her careful documentation jolted my memory of those first visits I made to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) library in London. It was there, with the assistance and encouragement of librarian Frances Walshe, that I began to put together the network of scholars that resulted in Rewriting Nursing History. But it was Baly who had the foresight and determination to put it all on paper and to work tirelessly behind the scenes with others such as Christopher Maggs to create an institutional presence for the history of nursing and to keep it alive.3

This article gives me an opportunity to reflect on the progress of nursing history since Rewriting Nursing History'was published in 1980. There is no hope, in a context such as this, of doing justice to the impressive volume and range of work that has been accomplished over the years. What I will do, instead, is ponder some of the reflections of those who are steeped in the field. I will ask myself how far the approaches being advocated by them today relate to the demands of that youthful band who worked toward something I described as "more intellectually satisfying and at the same time more relevant to practising nurses too".4 There are three parts to this article. First, I want to comment on the writing of Rewriting Nursing History and to trace how my own intellectual thinking about nursing - its past and its present - developed from and out of that. My training as a sociologist and student of social policy, rather than as an historian, is particularly germane to this. Second, I want to make some observations on a quarter-century of impressive achievements in the history of nursing. To help with that, I turn to four historiographic essays that have offered an overview at different points in the period raising issues - some of which differ and some of which remain the same. Third, I want to offer my own comments and observations on the current agenda - the themes and issues in the field and the circumstances under which nursing history is being produced.

An Intellectual Journey

Rewriting Nursing History was a book that fell into place not only as a result of conversations and correspondence with like-minded people in the worlds of academia but also with encouragement from the practicing nurses with whom I was in contact. We were in total agreement that it was time for a vibrant new kind of history, but we totally disagreed about the form that that history should take. My co-writers had strong commitments to labor history, Marxist history, and feminist history, to name a few. …