Connecting the Dots: Biography Shapes Nursing History

By Lewenson, Sandra B. | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Connecting the Dots: Biography Shapes Nursing History


Lewenson, Sandra B., Nursing History Review


I was asked to write about what biography means and its relationship to the biographies published in this edition of the Nursing History Review (NHR). To accomplish this task, I have spent the better part of a year reviewing biographical method papers (which are few and far between in nursing), as well as a variety of explanations made by biographers about the purpose of their respective studies. I also read the various forms of biographies included in this edition. This essay is not a method section or even a critique of method. Instead, it presents way of looking at some ideas about the meaning of biography, why biographies are needed, and how biographies help us understand history. The biographies published in the "People and Places" section in this edition of the NHR add texture and depth, and expand our understanding of the historical nursing landscape both nationally and internationally.

Historiographies about nursing examine specific events in the development of the nursing profession, and analyze the relationships between and among the various factors that affected the outcome of these relationships. Peggy Chinn noted, however, that when "reading nursing histories, we learn litde or nothing about nurses as people-their motives, ideals, personal values, how they viewed the circumstances of their lives."1 Biography allows the historiographer to focus her research around one particular person and study history from this vantage point.

Biographers "connect the dots," linking individuals to the events of the period in which they lived. Focusing on various aspects of someone's life allows the biographer to draw lines connecting that person to other people, places, and events in a particular timeframe. Zuhal Özaydin's work on nursing leaders in Turkey brings to light the connection between Fahrunisa Seden, Lavinia Dock, and the honoring of Florence Nightingale. Turkish nursing leader Seden met the American nursing leader Dock in 1947 at the International Council of Nurses meeting held that year in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Dock, who was ninety-four years of age, asked Seden about Turkey's plan to celebrate the centennial marking Nightingale's work in Uskadar and the beginning of modern nursing movement. This brief but important meeting between two nursing leaders set in motion the founding of the Florence Nightingale College of Nursing in Turkey.

Over time, examining biographies of a variety of nurses provide a way of understanding the connections made between and among the individuals who shape the history of nursing. Studying the lives of nursing leaders as well as ordinary everyday nurses allows historiographers opportunities to weave together a richer story than if only one designated group were to be studied. Susan Benedict uncovers the bravery of Maria Stromberger as she worked as a nurse in the Auschwitz death camp during World War II. Risking her life to expose the "otherworldliness of Auschwitz," Stromberger aided prisoners and assisted in documenting the horrors she saw. She attempted to undermine the Nazi system that created the camp by smuggling letters, documents, and film to the outside world, and returned with food and medicine to those inside. Following the war, Stromberger was arrested because of her role as a nurse in the concentration camp until members of the resistance, whom she aided throughout the war, came forward in her support. Although Stromberger was made a member of the Austrian Union of Former Prisoners of Concentration Camps, her story has not been heard until recently. Benedict's biography of Stromberger connects the work of this "ordinary" nurse who finds her self working in extraordinary conditions and bears witness to this period of time.

Each biographical study provides evidence that permits lines to be drawn and give form to a better understanding of history. Just as a picture drawn with dots becomes more apparent as the dots are connected, so too is historical understanding made more complete. …

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