The Rise of Mental Health Nursing: A History of Psychiatric Care in Dutch Asylums, 1890-1920

By Geertje Boschma | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
Controversy and Conflict over the Social Position of Nurses

An Ambiguous Social Position

Despite the promise of training, the social position of student nurses remained unstable and ambiguous. Although ideologically nursing had been reformulated as a respectable occupation, the actual working conditions rendered student nurses quite unprotected and prone to exploitation. Many nurses suffered from physical exhaustion as a result of the long working hours and strenuous working conditions. In Meerenberg, for example, the high turnover and continuous demand for personnel often prevented nurses from benefitting from a preparatory period in the nurses home. They were in a very vulnerable position as they usually came to work on the wards whilst young and with little experience. As discussed in Chapter V, high turnover was also a pressing issue at Veldwijk, and at Franeker, turnover rates remained high despite the increased status and training. During the first decades of the twentieth century, each year about a third to half of the nursing staff at Franeker were replaced by new applicants. 1 Their salaries were about the same as those of the traditional attendants 150 to 200 guilders in 1901. A graduate nurse earned 250 to 300 guilders, and the first nurses, 300 guilders. Yet the number of graduate nurses remained low. 2

The vulnerability of nurses became very clear in the case of the nineteen- year-old student nurse Elisabeth Johanna Van Steen at Meerenberg. In 1897 she was sentenced to one month in prison after an accident involving one of the patients. She had allegedly caused a patient's death from burns in a bath that was too hot. 3 Gerardus van Walsum, the physician in charge of the ward, reported to the court that the nurse had failed to check the bath's temperature properly. His impression was that this nurse was “somewhat loose”, “just her age”, and not one of the most meticulous nurses. 4

The case stirred enormous debate. 5 During the 1890s the reputation of Meerenberg had already been severely damaged after two accidents leading to the deaths of patients, 6 but in this case public indignation rose even higher. The case was widely discussed in the local newspapers and the Provincial Council's deputies began an extensive investigation after Elisabeth's appeal was upheld in a higher court. 7 Amsterdam lawyer J. A. Levy volunteered to appeal against the conviction. After strong resistance from the Meerenberg

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