History of American Hospitals

A Brief History of American Hospitals

There are many parallels in the history of the roles and practice of nurses and physicians. Both are basically clinical disciplines, thus the practice and education of each profession requires access to patients. Through the years hospitals have provided a primary source of clinical practice. The history of the education of nurses and physicians in America are similar in many ways - initially both started as apprentices; the future physician was indentured to an established physician[i] while the nurse began as an apprentice (‘trainee’) within a hospital. The established physician , accompanied by his apprentice, if he had one, treated patients in the office which was usually part of his home or made house calls traveling to the homes of those too ill or infirm to be seen in the office. Thus, the history of both professions is closely tied in with the history of hospitals.

Colonial Times

Colonial households treated most illnesses by long standing household remedies; if there was a doctor available he was called only if the illness was considered severe enough to warrant having a doctor visit; otherwise home remedies were used. The status of medical knowledge at that time was such that what treatment or remedies were ordered by the physician could be administered by the family member providing nursing care.
When someone became the last place they wanted to be was in what, in that time, passed for a hospital. If you had a family to care for you, you remained at home. [i] Caring for ill family members was – and in some cases remains – the responsibility of women. Revenby points out caring for ill and aged family members were considered “a woman’s self-sacrificing service to others”.[ii]

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[i] Rosenberg, Charles, 1987. The Care of Strangers, Basic Books, p.4

[ii] Revenby, Susan, 1987. Ordered to Care The Dilemma of American Nursing 1850 – 1945, Cambridge History of Medicine Cambridge University Press, p.11


[i] Flexner, Abraham, 1910. Medical Education in the United States and Canada. A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of teaching. Bulletin Number Four. Reproduced 1972 by D.B. Updyke, Merrymount Press, Boston p.3.