New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives

By Barbara Mortimer; Susan McGann | Go to book overview

2

Ethical lives in the early nineteenth century

Nursing and a history of caring

Julia Hallam

Autobiographies and biographies of nurses can be found on the shelves of many public libraries in Britain. Written for a general readership, many of these accounts contain detailed descriptions of the day-to-day practicalities of living and working as a nurse in various spheres of professional practice. What might these (auto)biographies contribute to our knowledge of nursing history? Christopher Maggs argues that nursing history helps furnish the detail of political, economic and social history but has yet to generate its own conceptual statements about nursing and caring. 1 It is almost as though history and nursing are separate, and that studies of the history of nursing bear no relationship to theories about nursing or caring. Maggs is interested in how an exploration of the historical landscape might aid the construction (reconstruction and destruction) of nursing or caring models. He suggests that if nursing history is to contribute to the development of nursing knowledge, we have to investigate 'the world of the patient and the world of care [that] remain[s] largely hidden from view'. 2 This study explores the contribution nursing (auto)biographies can make to what Maggs productively suggests might be termed a history of caring by revealing not only the institutional and social development of nursing as a profession but the skills, knowledge and ethos of everyday nursing practice.

(Auto)biographies are a potential source of what Patricia Benner terms 'expert testimony'. 3 By collecting accounts of nursing practice from 'expert nurses'-those who spend their working lives engaged in the practical aspects of nursing-Benner suggests it is possible to begin to establish what nurses do when they nurse and examine the ways in which they practise caring. (Auto)biographical accounts can contribute to this project by constructing a history of nursing vested in the experiences of those who worked as nurses. Many popular (auto)biographies were written in the twentieth century, and some in the Victorian era, when the Nightingale reforms began to be instituted (albeit unevenly) throughout the British Isles and further afield as nursing began its struggle to become recognized internationally as a profession. A minority of these accounts bear substantial reference to the pre-Nightingale era, of which two, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands and The Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis: Betsy Cadwaladyr, a Balaclava Nurse, are perhaps the most well known in Britain. These accounts form the focus of this enquiry. 4

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