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Focus: A brief history of men in nursing

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Historically, nursing has not always been a predominately female profession. Men mostly made up the numbers of what it was nursing in the time before Florence Nightingale.

That all changed with her perception of nursing as a female only career, according to David Ross, Liverpool John Moores University, in the journal Links to Health and Social Care.

Some scholars are now also wondering whether her apparent assertion that “every woman is a nurse by nature” could have a part to play in why there are fewer men in nursing today.

Dr Heather Whitford, from the University of Dundee, and Dr James Taylor, from the University of the West of Scotland, said last year that perhaps Florence Nightingale’s declarations that nursing comes naturally to women, has had a “long-term unintended consequence”.

Despite the current level of men in nursing being relatively low, they stated in an article for the Royal College of Nursing that this was not always so. “A millennia ago it was the norm for men, albeit under monastic orders or in a military context, to provide care for the poor, sick or injured,” they said.

In fact, according to Mr Ross, the first nursing school in the world included men only and started as far back as 250 BC in India. Male nurses cared for troops during the Crusades in the 11th century and by 1870 it was still men that “staffed field hospitals” in the Franco Prussian War, he noted.

During World War I male nurses served on the frontline, helping the injured. But, though holding the same training and diplomas as their female equivalents, they were known as “orderlies” and were paid about half of what women were.

In 1919, the Nurse Registration Act was passed, which saw legal recognition granted to male nurses. Although, Mr Ross highlighted that the men were put on a separate register to females.

Community nursing

Men in nursing

Source: Topfoto

1947: One of the first male distict nurses

As well as their association with the military, nurses who were male were often seen working in mental health hospitals, highlights a 2016 RCN document called The Voice of Nursing. It said men received very little training at these hospitals, which meant that male nurses were perceived as less qualified and of a lower status than female nurses.

It said this created a gender stereotype in which men worked in mental health nursing and women worked in general nursing. However, the segregation between male and female nurses changed during World War II when they were brought together by the armed forces and worked together successfully, noted the RCN paper.

When the war ended, many male nurses opted to try and take up nursing jobs as they returned to civilian life. Due to a nursing shortage at the time, the government encouraged the recruitment of men into both mental and general nursing aspects of the profession.

It was around about this time, in 1947, that the sex segregation of nurse registries came to an end, with men being allowed education and employment equity by the 1960s. Furthermore, in 1960, men were also allowed to become members of the RCN.

Also in 1947, a trial was conducted with four men selected to be trained as district nurses. They nursed only male patients and did not wear a uniform, changing into a white jacket when in the patient’s home.

By 1955, following a gradual increase, men represented 10% of NHS nurses but this has only reached around 11% by 2015 – and still hovers around these levels today, with men more heavily represented in mental health and learning disabilities nursing.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Really interesting article thank you. Great that it includes mention of the first male District Nurses, who were trained by the Queen's Nursing Institute. One of them wrote about his experiences at the time: https://qniheritage.org.uk/stories/d-j-gillett/

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