The science, art and craft of nursing, and the nurse 'herself', touch and have touched almost all lives wherever they are lived. Nurses, most of them women, are more numerous than their colleagues who practise medicine. It would seem that the history of nursing is uniquely placed to contribute to the mainstream history of health care and women. Yet nurses and their work have attracted scant attention from historians of medicine and health and, until very recently, from feminist historians. Nurses rarely emerge in accounts of pioneering medicine and were awarded little space in the histories of hospitals.
The written history of 'modern' nursing in the English-speaking world began to be constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century; it rapidly took on the guise of a professional project designed to valorize and justify an emergent profession for respectable women of the time. For many years the creation of a grand narrative of the history of nursing was something engaged with and read almost exclusively by nurses. This position changed only slowly, and in Britain the publication by Brian Abel Smith in 1960 of A History of the Nursing Profession marked a new phenomenon, the direction of serious attention to the history of nursing by non-nurses. 1 However, Abel Smith, interested in social policy, made it clear in the introduction to his book that he proposed to write a political history of nursing; he saw himself as unfitted to write 'a history of nursing techniques or of nursing as an activity or skill'. 2 Since 1960, the history of nursing has continued along two tracks. A clear thread of work that valorizes the profession has continued; but a critical historiography emerged in the later twentieth century that is beginning to challenge for a place in the mainstream of social, gender and medical history.
The history of nursing has been dominated, overshadowed and at times swamped by the iconic figure of Florence Nightingale. 3 Nightingale was an immensely complex, talented and long-lived woman whose published and unpublished output was enormous. 4 Innumerable accounts of her life have been published, and she continues to attract biographers for both a scholarly and a popular readership.