"Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire": From Private Nurse to Police Assistant-A Case Study from the Turn of the 19th to the 20th Century

By Hähner-Rombach, Sylvelyn | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

"Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire": From Private Nurse to Police Assistant-A Case Study from the Turn of the 19th to the 20th Century


Hähner-Rombach, Sylvelyn, Nursing History Review


At the beginning of the twentieth century, new fields of activity for women-often for those with a nursing background-were gradually emerging. It had become clear to an increasing degree that the solution of the so-called social question by means of reforms would call for more and more professionals in the field of social and welfare work, instead of the laypersons who until then had enjoyed a monopoly in this area. Up to that point it had often been private charities that took care of social problems-especially in health-connected areas, such as tuberculosis control, child care, youth welfare, maternity care, housing, and so forth.1 At the outset, a large percentage of the initiators of private charitable activities were women of the bourgeoisie, now active in a field of duty that was both respectable and meritorious. However, it soon became clear that the sphere of activity of private charity organizations was too limited, obliging the state authorities to intervene and replace, extend, or improve the activities of these organizations in the social field.2 Hence, there was now, on the one hand, a growing need for professionals, and, on the other, a large group of aspirants or potential candidates for the job-the nurses, many of whom, especially the trained ones, were trying to find an alternative field of activity, because in the long run private practice and hospital work were not proving to be attractive forms of employment.

In this article, I will present a case study exemplifying the reasons that drove a private nurse to look for an alternative means of livelihood, and will elaborate upon the problems she might have expected to encounter in the course of pursuing an entirely new career. In 1903, a onetime private nurse, Henriette Arendt (1874-1922), became the first female police assistant in Stuttgart, the capital of Württemberg.3 This case study is based on several sources: a diary that Henriette Arendt published in 1909, under the title Dornenpfade der Barmherzigkeit. Aus Schwester Gerda's Tagebuch (Charity's Thorny Path-Excerpts from Nurse Gerda's Diary);4 a report on her experiences as police assistant in Stuttgart;5 several other publications stemming from her work as police assistant; 6 and records of her dispute with her employer, the city of Stuttgart.7 The title of the diary-Excerpts from Nurse Gerda's Diary-notwithstanding, our assumption is that the book, a mixture of documentation, fiction, and autobiography, strongly parallels the editor's own life.8 Even if the diary is not altogether autobiographical, the episodes concerning private nursing are authentic enough-a finding corroborated by Agnes Karll, founder of the Professional Association of Nurses in Germany,9 who wrote the foreword to the book and who could speak from much personal experience as a private nurse.10

A Word about Henriette Arendt

Henriette Arendt was born in Königsberg in 1874.11 Her father, Max Arendt, was a merchant and city councilor. Following a secondary and commercial education, she spent one year at the Ecole Supérieure in Geneva. Afterward, she worked for her father's company as an accountant until she decided, on attaining her majority in 1895, and against her father's will, to train as a nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin.12 Her nurse's training took one year but she stayed at the Jewish Hospital for two. Then she worked as a private nurse until 1903, when she secured the job as a police assistant in Stuttgart. Her diary, 322 pages long, covers the period April 1896 to May 1903-seven years in all. Motivated by the idea of providing the reader with the origins of her desire to become a nurse, the author begins with a brief survey of her childhood and adolescence. She goes on to catalog her experiences both in hospitals and in private practice, describing along the way the inferior quality of housing in the so-called nurses' homes, the living conditions of private nurses, the problems caused by the fact that nurses remained in the job only a short while, and the difficulties of finding work in other fields. …

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