American Nursing History


In Our Past, Lies our Future

History bears witness to key events and in the development of our professional identity.

Historians often record the lives of nurses considered to have made a ‘noteworthy’ contribution to nursing or those who have witnessed or been part of an important event. I believe that it’s important to look at the experiences of all nurses as each, in their own way have contributed to the nursing profession.

The American Nurses Association states on their website “The world of professional nursing practice and health policy is ever evolving to meet the new dynamics of care needs in every setting”. Achieving professional status for nurses has been a long and, at times, rocky process.

Reviewing the history of nursing in America as told in literature and the personal histories of nurses, aids in understanding how nurses have conquered obstacles along the way to achieving full partnership in decision making in healthcare. These stories are told in this website Whenever possible, I plan to quote the words of past nurses as captured through their oral histories, memoirs, letters and written articles. 

I have had a long career in nursing so when I felt it was appropriate I have included parts of my journey.

Davida Michaels, MSN, M.Ed. R.N.

Why Study History?

One question that I've been asked is: why study nursing history? How is the history of nursing and nursing education relevant to current nursing practice? In 1907, Adelaide Nutting and Lavinia Dock wrote in the preface to their book on the history of nursing:

". . . the modern nurse, keenly interested as she is in the present and future of her profession, knows little of its past. She loses both the inspiration which arises from cherished tradition, and the perspective which shows the relation of one progressive movement to others. Only in the light of history can she see how closely her own calling is linked with the general conditions of education and liberty that obtain - as they rise, she rises, and as they sink, she falls."

The study of nursing history encourages critical reflection and assists in defining our professional identity. As such, it is relevant to current nursing practice. "Indeed, nursing history should be included as part of the nursing curriculum; including nursing history into the curriculum will allow us to educate rather than "train" our students. In so doing, we will give them a sense of professional identity, a useful methodological research skill, and a context for evaluating information. Overall, it will provide students with the cognitive flexibility that will be required for the formation and navigation of tomorrow's health care environment" (Borsy, 2009).

Allen, Margaret, (2006).Mapping the literature of nursing education, Journal Medical Library Association94(2 Supplement 2006

Nutting, M. Adelaide and Lavinia L. Dock, 1907, A History of Nursing,Prefacep. V.G.P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press, New York

Borsay, Anne,Nursing History Review 17 (2009);14-27 A Publication of the American Association for the History of Nursing, Springer Publishing Company DOI:10.1891/1062-8061.17.14 Quote attributed to :Keeling , Arlene and Mary Ramos The role of nursing history in preparing nursing for the future.Nursing and Health Care16
(l):30-34 from Nursing History in the Curriculum: Preparing nurses for the 21st Century

Topics Covered

American Nursing History - Topics

Evolution of Professional Nursing in America

Occupational Pathways

Nursing in War, Disasters and Epidemics

Hospitals, Physicians and Nursing

Nursing Education in America
[Includes Oral History , Oral Histories of graduates
of Diploma, ADN, Baccalaureate and Advanced Degree Programs]

Another rare, Historical voice recording. Florence Nightingale(1820.5.12 - 1910.8.13), known as "The Lady with the Lamp" and a pioneering nurse, writer, and noted statistician, recorded some words on Edison Parafine Wax Cylinder, on July 30th, 1890. This is a 1933 Dubbing from the original cylinder, made by Edison-Bell Company from England, released as "19th Century Celebrities Series No.1".




My Nursing Journey

I went into nursing after I was married. I had had three years of college and intended to go into medicine; love intervened and we married and started a family.When our second child entered school, I decided to return to school;  medicine wasn't an option at that point because of family obligations. After some thought, I decided on nursing . I was accepted  in the nursing program at the  University of Rochester however I could not afford college tuition . What to do? My parents next door neighbor was the chief of staff at Genesee Hospital The hospital had a diploma program which he highly recommended.  I decided to apply at the hospital's school of nursing and was accepted. What had seemed like an obstacle turned out to be a blessing.  The education I received both in the principles and clinical  experiences was excellent.  I have gone on to obtain two bachelors' degrees a, one in general studies and the other in nursing as well as two Masters' degrees , one in nursing and the other in education. I consider the strong foundation in nursing as well as clinical experiences in a teaching hospital was, to me, priceless.

Student nurse showing off her Freshman uniform to the family

Student nurse showing off her Freshman uniform to the family

At that time pre clinical subjects such as chemistry and anatomy and physiology were taught at a Community College. By also taking several classes at the University was able to earn the number of credits I needed and graduated from the University of Rochester in 1968 with  bachelor’s degree.

I graduated from nursing school in 1969 and started to work in the hospital’s ICU, I do not recall thinking about whether nursing was a job or profession.  I recall the Fundamentals of Nursing instructor was very clear when she instructed us not to refer to our education as ‘Training’; we were told – “animals are trained; people are educated”. When asked I  told people that I was a registered nurse and worked  at the hospital. I considered work as a job not a career. I had a bachelor’s degree but it was not in nursing;. I can recall attending a meeting with  fellow diploma graduates on the topic of the baccalaureate degree as the entry level for nursing. - as I recall it was a very noisy meeting – some of the sentiments expressed were: ‘it will never happen; diploma nurses are the ones who know how to care for patients’ and nurses with a bachelor’s degree don’t want to spend all the money and time just to provide bedside care.’  I kept quiet but it was clear to me that to progress in nursing would require a bachelor’s degree in nursing. .[1] I realized  I’d better go back to school and obtain my BSN. In 1972 I graduated from the University of Rochester . Along with my new degree, I started taking ‘baby steps’ toward thinking about what constitutes a  profession and how does this relate to nursing..




Nurses Thru the Ages.jpg

Introduction - Origin of  My Interest in Nursing History

I first became interested in the history of nursing when I began to think what it means to me to be a nurse. As I read about the history of nursing,  I began to realize and appreciate the struggle of nursing to gain control of their practice, develop standards  of care, earn a fair wage  and through education to obtain the knowledge, skills and ability to give quality care to our patients, elevating nursing to a profession and gaining the respect of other professions.

I read about the pioneers of nursing and their experiences, many told in their own words. I believe that events are clearer and more 'real', when related by people who were there and were part of the event. When several people relate events it is likely that there will be different perspectives resulting in a three dimensional picture. On a personal level, as I looked at photographs of nursing students from the 1880's to the present time I thought about each and wondered who they were, and what their story was.. Where were the stories of the these nurses seen only in photographs - many without their names?  I believe that the stories of  nurses are too important to lose and that it is important to the history of nursing and nursing  education to record these stories.

While it is not possible to obtain oral histories from some of the early pioneers in nursing, we are fortunate to have their written memoirs, biographies  and in some cases journal articles or books that they have written. Unfortunately, many nurses did not leave a written record of their experiences.  And in today's fast paced world with technology that allows for instant communication, e-mails and text messaging, read and then deleted, many stories  are lost.

This lead to the oral history project - see the Education Section of this website.

While interviewing nurses regarding their basic nursing education I discovered that they were eager to tell me  about their life and career as Registered Nurse. I listened and realized that their stories were valuable additions to the history of nursing.


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Davida Michaels, MSN, M.Ed. RN.
Sole Owner, designer  and webmaster -


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Davida (Debbie) Michaels


Sole Owner, Designer and Webmaster

July, 2018

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