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A History Of Nursing From 1900 - Today

history of nursing

The duties of modern day nurses are virtually unrecognizable compared to those at the turn of the last century when nurses were more housekeepers. Their serious work included boiling equipment and applying leeches per the physician’s instruction.

Hospitals trained nurses at the turn of the 20th century and students were expected to work at least 10-hour shifts every day of the week at very little pay while trying to earn a diploma. They trained on the job with very little instruction inside an actual classroom.

Probationers, as new students in the nursing field were called, had duties that included washing dishes, dusting, and mopping. They were expected to adhere to a strict code of decorum and obey physicians and their supervisors without question.

Once a nurse learned to take orders she spent up to 6 weeks in the operating room where she inventoried sterilized bandages. She took charge of sterilizing water used during surgery and kept the entire operating room spotlessly clean. Fully trained private nurses netted $5 per week.

With a major increase in immigration, nurses visited people in tenement housing in large cities, employed to teach basic health care to help lessen the chance of disease in the slums. They taught essential nutrition and health related child care issues.

Nurses were housekeepers and cooks for families at fifty cents an hour. They bathed patients, inserted catheters, dispersed medication, and administered enemas. The nurse prepared holistic remedies to treat a number of common ailments.

Men moved away from nursing roles in the 1930s. At this time the middle class turned toward medical treatment in hospitals. Nurses worked at military hospitals to support the war effort, which created a severe shortage of nurses in civilian run hospitals.

A government program subsidized education for nurses provided they promised to serve in communities lacking skilled nurses and for three years 150,000 nurses were trained. During the war over 100,000 trained nurses volunteered for military duty and about 200 nurses died in the Army.

After the war nurses were treated with more respect and were more skilled thanks to the military. Nurses were familiar with anesthesia and important aspects of psychiatric care. The government saw the importance at that time for health care services and medical insurance was born.

With the advent of penicillin, pharmaceutical drugs became a big hit. Infections were now curable and invasive surgeries were more common. Drugs treated tuberculosis and polio, and wonder drugs included contraceptives, anti-inflammatories, and the welcome discovery of Valium.

Advances in nursing were still to come in the 1950s. Injections were still prepared with a pestle and mortar. Oxygen tanks were strapped to beds and there was very little equipment that was disposable. Nurses were in charge of sharpening needles and sterilizing catheter units.

Intensive care units were developed in the 60s. Specialized nursing opened up and advanced degrees became available. Nurse practitioners were made popular and the push was on for higher levels of nursing education. Men began trickling back into the field.

Hospital technology put nurses in ICUs for every hour of the day. Daily routines included reading heart monitoring machines and taking patient blood pressure. At this point, doctors felt threatened, thinking nurses were nearing the point of practicing medicine. Public support of nurse practitioners permitted this important shift in nursing.

History repeats itself as modern day nurses are responsible for educating the masses in public health care and are managing roles outside of institutions, much like they did at the turn of the 20th century. Nurses are as much in demand now as they were then.

Modern day nursing skills are significantly more advanced than that of nurses in the 1900s. A synergistic team effort is necessary to support the health of the patient making communication critical between staff and patient, and nurses and doctors. Nurses empower patients and let them know they’re responsible for their health just as much as a medical professional or caregiver.

Treatment has gone beyond physical care and requires the trust of the patient. A nurse knows more than anyone that compassion and genuine care are integral parts of the healing process. No one knows the health of their patient more intimately than the nurse who spends the most time with them.


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