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Nursing before Nightingale, 1815-1899 (The History of Medicine in Context)

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Title: Nursing before Nightingale, 1815-1899 (The History of Medicine in Context)

Authors: Carol Helmstadter, Judith Godden

Publisher: Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Reviewer: Paul Watson RN, BA(Hons), SCPHN, PSHE, PGCE. school nurse, Norfolk Community Health and Care (NCH+C)

What was it like?

Nursing Before Nightingale describes itself as a study of the transformation of nursing in England from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the emergence of the Nightingale nurse as the standard model in the 1890s. This book discusses two major earlier reforms in nursing: a doctor-driven reform, which came to be called the ‘ward system’, and the reforms of the Anglican Sisters, known as the ‘central system’ of nursing. Rather than being the beginning of nursing reform, Nightingale nursing was the culmination of these two earlier reforms. This book hopes to demonstrate through the use of historical literature and accounts that the real cause of nursing reform was the development of the new scientific medicine. It also demonstrates how the pre-industrial work ethic of the old hospital nurses could not meet the requirements of the new medicine. And it makes the connection between this being a female vocation, working class, not socially mobile employment, and the problems with recruitment and retention of nurses in the early nineteenth century (a situation that I am sure we could all relate to today).


What were the highlights?

I believe that any reader will be struck by the similarities of events and practices that have gone on in the past, and how we seem destined to repeat events in later years (even down to detailing how matron was balancing the budget by closing beds and laying off nurses). I liked seeing how the nurse and the nursing profession has evolved from the depicted “Sarah Gamps”, the caricature of the callous domiciliary nurse created by the novelist Charles Dickens, to the nurse we know today. Initially I was not impressed to be reminded that nurses were originally nothing more than cleaners of furniture and property, and had little to do with patients. This did, however, make me smile as the nurse evolved into a career, with one important part of her job being to ensure that the patients received adequate food and hydration (perhaps some trusts need to have a copy of this book).

Strengths and weaknesses?

While I found the subject of this book interesting, it was at times a bit of a difficult read. There was a lot of fascinating information and facts, but at times there was a feeling of repetition from chapter to chapter, with this at times making it tough to hold my concentration. On the whole, though, it was a pleasant book to study. I was able to pick it up and put it down without losing the flow of that chapter. I was, however, surprised at the price of this book, retailing at a recommended £65, and would possibly suggest looking at a library copy to see if you would get your moneys worth from it. I was pleased to see that I was able to find an eBook version, but this was similarly priced to the hardback version.

Who should read it?

I believe that this book will be of great value to those studying the history of medicine, labour, religion, gender studies and the rise of a respectable society in the nineteenth century. I would be recommending this as an interesting read to any pre registration student to be able to gain an understanding of how the current nurse and nursing system developed and evolved into that of the current profession.

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