With the global pandemic has come a renewed appreciation for the dedication of medical professionals.
Even before hospitals were maxed out with gravely ill COVID-19 patients, nurses and doctors worked long, grueling hours, giving care to those during their most vulnerable. National Nurses Week is May 6-12, ending on Florence Nightingale’s birthday and International Nurses Day. Across the country, businesses are rewarding health care workers with free goodies and patients, friends and family are thanking those on the medical frontlines for their sacrifices.
The nursing profession has been supported and promoted by the American Nurses Association since 1896. Each of ANA’s state and territorial nurses associations promotes the nursing profession at the state and regional levels and holds celebrations during May to recognize the contributions that nurses make to the community.
Thank you, nurses. You have dedicated your lives to the medical field and helping others, and for that, we are grateful.
A brief history of nursing in the United States
From the University of Pennsylvania
Professional nursing has a long, fascinating history and holds a unique place in the American health care system. As members of the largest health care profession, the nation’s 3.1 million nurses work in diverse settings and fields from nurse practitioner to medical assistants.
Throughout history, the sick were often taken care of at home by family members or local healers. In the United States, family-centered sickness care remained traditional until the nineteenth century. Sick care delivered by other than family and close acquaintances was generally limited to epidemics and plagues that periodically impacted towns and cities.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, urbanization and industrialization changed the way in which sick individuals received care. As hospitals increased in numbers so did the demand for caregivers. Recognizing the importance of good nursing care to a patient’s well-being, some physicians initiated courses for nursing. The outbreak of the Civil War created an immediate need for capable nurses to care for the enormous number of sick and wounded.
The year 1873 was a watershed year in American professional nursing history: three nurse educational programs — the New York Training School at Bellevue Hospital, the Connecticut Training School at the State Hospital (later renamed New Haven Hospital) and the Boston Training School at Massachusetts General Hospital — began operations. These programs, all based on ideas advanced by nurse Florence Nightingale, are generally acknowledged to be the forerunners of organized, professional nurse education in the United States.
The success of these programs led to a proliferation of similar nursing schools. By 1900, somewhere between 400 to 800 schools of nursing were in operation in the country. As the number of nurses grew in the late nineteenth century, nursing took on the rudimentary characteristics of a profession. In the 1890s, nurses organized two major professional associations: the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses, later renamed the National League of Nursing Education, and the Associated Alumnae of the United States, later renamed the American Nurses Association. Other major organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and the National Organization for Public Health Nursing formed in the early twentieth century. The successful passage of nurse registration acts, considered a significant legislative accomplishment at a time when women held little political power, also provided nurses with their modern legal title: registered professional nurses. Sadly, reflecting the social and legal status of African Americans at the time, American professional nursing maintained strict in its racial segregation until the mid-twentieth century. Nursing also remained a predominantly female profession. While a few schools admitted men, most schools refused them admission.
During the 1920s and 1930s, hospitals continued to expand, adding more patient beds and delivering care that was rapidly becoming more complex. When the United States entered World War II, nurses duplicated the excellent work they had performed in World War I, taking critical positions in the armed services and ensuring that the military received appropriate care. About 78,000 nurses served in World War II, their contributions acknowledged as essential to victory.
The post-World-War-II era posed new challenges for the profession. While the modern intensive health care system that emerged after the war demanded larger numbers of nurses to handle the needs of patients, there seemed to be fewer young women willing to choose nursing as a career. Nursing failed to keep up economically with other occupations.
In the mid-twentieth century, nursing abandoned its objectionable system of racial and gender segregation, opening up equal educational, professional, and employment opportunities to all nurses. Beginning in the 1960s, new types of nurses specialized in different hospital settings. Today, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists and other specialty-area nurses are well established and carry out a significant portion of health care activities.
The profession began to flourish in the late twentieth century. Significant federal financial support for educating nurses, which became available beginning in the 1960s, permitted the modernizing of many educational programs. Nurse researchers today carry out cutting-edge studies that shed light on many health care problems.
As the twenty-first century continues, the profession of nursing faces many challenges such as periodic shortage of nurses, an aging population and most recently, COVID-19.