Critical Issues in the Use of Biographic Methods in Nursing History

Article excerpt

bio: life graph: writing1

I brushed up against the renowned Canadian nurse Ethel Johns in front of a stone hearth in the Woodward Biomedical Library at the University of British Columbia. That is to say, I ran my fingertips along the edges of her aged letters, mostly typed on blue tissue-thin chapter with a jumpy typewriter. I had already read Margaret Street's comprehensive, award-winning biography and through it became acquainted with Johns and her unique brand of nursing leadership during the 192Os and 1930s.2 Street did not have access to the letters I fingered, however, and handling them brought a thrill of discovery. I began to comprehend the allure of historiography. However, nursing historiography is undergoing change, and the relevance of the biographic method is being challenged. Historians of nursing are promoting a "new historiography": Patricia D'Antonio is urging scholars to "revisit and rethink the rewriting of nursing history" ; Christopher Maggs is calling for a "new approach to defining historical questions and a new search for meanings"; Sioban Nelson is asking historians to reconsider the purpose and audience of nursing history.3 The new historiography rejects nursing's "cosy professioncentred celebration of its past," emphasizing issues or themes such as ethics, technology, civics, and religion rather than focusing on nursing's "great women."4 If the biographic method is to remain relevant in the new non-subject-centered milieu, biography must be approached and written in new ways. After a brief argument in favor of the biographic method, the present chapter revisits and revises methodological concerns raised by others, focusing on four critical issues in the use of biographic methods in nursing history: selecting a "worthy" subject, dealing with limited sources, exemplifying truth in data analysis, and writing a compelling report.

Relevance of the Biographic Method

Nursing is a rich and virtually untapped international field from which to choose subjects for a biographical study. While recognizing the universality of biographic methods in nursing, this chapter focuses on examples from Canadian nursing history. Nurses have made up the largest professional work force in Canada, and Canadian nursing history extends back three and a half centuries.5 Yet the number of biographic studies of Canadian nurses remains surprisingly small. In 1975, the year Margaret Street wrote her biography of Ethel Johns, there existed almost no biographic studies of outstanding members of the profession in Canada.6 In the three decades since then, historical studies of varying depth have been conducted on Canadian nurse leaders Edith Kathleen Russell, Jean I. Gunn, Elizabeth McMaster, and Caroline Wellwood, among others.7 Reasons for the paucity of biographic studies may include the low status of biography within the discipline of history, the low status of historical research within the discipline of nursing, and the low status of nurses within society.8 Janet Ross Kerr notes that nursing has always been susceptible to biases associated with gender as the nursing work force has been primarily composed of women.9 Thus, the lack of scholarly interest in nurses may be partly related to the historic lack of interest in women. However, even scholars interested in nursing and in women are not choosing biographic methods: only two of nineteen doctoral studies listed in the "New Dissertations" section of the 2003 volume of Nursing History Review were biographies.10 As nursing historiography moves toward an emphasis on themes rather than individuals, the biography risks becoming obsolete.11 Despite waning scholarly interest in biographic methods (or perhaps because of it) there is a growing need for biographic studies-particularly of ordinary nurses' lives. For purposes of this chapter, the term "biographic method" is used to describe any historiographical approach that seeks to understand the life of an individual person; "nursing biographies" refers to studies of the professional lives of individual nurses. …