Cure or No Cure: Nursing Practices of Profession, Self-Help, and Naturopathy in Late-Nineteenth-Century and Early-Twentieth-Century Reference Books

By Roth, Sabina | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Cure or No Cure: Nursing Practices of Profession, Self-Help, and Naturopathy in Late-Nineteenth-Century and Early-Twentieth-Century Reference Books


Roth, Sabina, Nursing History Review


Historians of nursing as it was practiced in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland1 have dedicated much research to the question of how-in the period from the second half of the nineteenth century until the eve of World War I-the work of nursing was reformed, actually constituted, and implemented as a female profession. Th us, we know that the medical knowledge expected of a trained nurse was limited to what was considered appropriate to the job of a doctor's sensible and reliable assistant. The nurse's apprenticeship promoted practical skills and submission to medical authority. No scientific ballast was allowed to hinder the nurse's emotional identification with the patient. The nursing sister's religious calling and obedience to the motherhouse of the nursing orders or congregations and the secular nurse's morals and character during and after working hours both came under constant scrutiny-a scrutiny designed to save the nurse from giving herself airs or overestimating herself. Beyond this, the purpose of the apprenticeship was to distance her from "pseudo-knowledge" and "quackery" and to save her from deciding, on her own initiative, how to treat or cure the patient.

During the years when this concept of the nursing profession2 dominated the development of the education, duties, and identity of nurses in secular as well as in religious institutions, such "half-knowledge" and "quackery" were, in the eyes of the medical profession, widespread. The practice of folk and popular medicine,3 as well as of medicine that would nowadays be dubbed alternative, unconventional, or complementary,4 was making important contributions to health care and to the treatment of illnesses. The quest for health was central to bourgeois society, and individual responsibility-and especially self-help-were highly prized in the overall scheme of personal and public hygiene. The universal obligation to acquire the basics of health maintenance and thereby build up resistance to disease and premature decay was not questioned by physicians. Indeed, they were the source of a constantly flowing and broadening stream of knowledge about the body, translated into popular terms, which the general public was intended to take to heart.5 When it came to the actual treatment of illness, however, self-help movements, unregulated therapists, popular medical traditions, self-acquired knowledge, and alternative medicine all equally provoked opposition and controversy.

Self-Help, Naturopathy, and an Inquiry into the History of Nursing Practice

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, alternative medicine in the German Empire and in the Swiss Confederation played a dynamic role in the organization and institutionalization of medical self-help.6 Founder figures and their medical concepts, associations and alliances of devotees, spas offering cold water cures and other such treatments, and above all, mass-produced booklets and journals all disseminated their lore of natural healing, graphically affirming that their conception of a medical alternative, entailing self-help and the services of lay therapists and unorthodox physicians, was a resource as important as, or even superior to, orthodox medical science, including the services of a doctor. Self-help was held to be indispensable-certainly in cases of emergency, when a physician was too far away or when his prescription could not help.

Many efforts were made to inform the public about the benefits of nature cures, homoeopathy, and other healing methods, as well as to warn it about critical aspects of physicians' treatments, such as surgery, vaccinations, or the administration of drugs. This barrage of information included pointed comment on the negative aspects of competing unconventional methods. On the eve of World War I, behind the biggest organization of medical alternatives stood naturopathy. The Deutsche Bund der Vereine für naturgemäße Lebens-und Heilweise counted almost 150,000 members and 890 local associations. …

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