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Journal of Christian Nursing:
doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0b013e3181d68a83
Department: NEW In Retrospect

Revis(it)ing Nursing History

Grypma, Sonya

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Sonya Grypma, PhD, RN, is a Nurse Historian and Associate Professor at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada. She is the author of numerous publications including Healing Henan: Canadian Nurses at the North China Mission, 1888–1947.

What are the three most recognizable images of nursing (even though it's been years since two have been widely used)? If you thought Florence Nightingale, nursing caps, and the nursing lamp, you're correct. Unfortunately, however, at the same time nurses were shedding caps, pins, and related nursing ceremonies, nursing also was shedding the study of history. As books like Nutting and Dock's A History of Nursing and Gibbon's Three Centuries of Canadian Nursing were shelved, so too was the notion that history may have something of value to teach nurses. It is only recently as historians have started to rediscover the richness inherent in nursing that nurses have started to ask, what has our preoccupation with the present cost us? What might nurses gain by revisiting, and even revising, nursing history?

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According to Nelson and Gordon (2004) nursing's rupture from its past has contributed to recurrent problems in the construction of nursing's contemporary identity and search for social legitimacy. That is, by disconnecting with the past, nurses have lost a sense of shared identity and purpose. For Christian nurses this loss is particularly poignant. Disengaging with the religious roots of nursing has eroded the ability to thoughtfully engage with theologies of nursing, learn from nurses whose sense of religious calling shaped their approach to the sick, and understand ways in which religious nursing both contributed to, and detracted from, the care of sick and injured strangers. Contemporary Christian nurses who grapple with questions of ethics, spiritual care, and social justice may learn from asking questions, like, when did the concept of spiritual care enter nursing textbooks? How did lessons learned through Tuskegee shape understandings of ethical nursing care? What can we learn from missionary nurses who helped develop the "social gospel?"

If history is to be a credible source of knowledge for practicing nurses, then creators and consumers of history alike must resist sentimentalized views of nursing's past. Iconic images of nursing rarely resemble historical reality. As I've noted elsewhere, the way we've come to understand Florence Nightingale may have less to do with the reality of her life and work than the image that others have projected upon her (see Grypma, 2005a, b). The image of Nightingale as "the lady with the lamp" quietly gliding among sleeping Crimean soldiers more accurately represents Longfellow's poetic imagination in his 1857 Santa Filomena than the historical record. Furthermore, Nightingale's actual lamp was not a genie lamp at all, but rather a Turkish lamp. My point: The past-as-lived is much more interesting and instructive than the past-as-imagined, or even hoped for. If we really want to learn from the past, we must be willing to ask the difficult questions—the kind that stained glass windows, sculptures, and memorials cannot answer.

If the goal of historical study is to render visible that which has been hidden, for nurses it also has a practical purpose. My own foray into the lives of nurses past started with the discovery of an unpublished cache of letters written by missionary nurses working in wartime China in the 1930s. Entering into the stories of nurses collectively attempting to balance personal and professional values with the devastating reality of war raised new questions about nursing identity, faith-based practice, globalization, and intercultural nursing—and provided a context to understand why it is that nurses respond to social needs in a particular way, be it the earthquake in Haiti, a looming H1N1 pandemic, or political attempts at healthcare reform. For Christian nurses, history helps us gain a clearer understanding of God's unfolding story and our place in it.

Figure. A real Night...
Figure. A real Night...
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Dock, L., & Nutting, A. (1907). A history of nursing: The evolution of nursing in systems from the earliest times to the foundation of the first English and American training schools. New York: Putnam.

Gibbon, J. (1947). Three centuries of Canadian nursing. Toronto: Macmillan.

Grypma, S. (2005a). Florence Nightingale's changing image, Part I: Nightingale the feminist, statistician and nurse. Journal of Christian Nursing, 22(3), 22–28.

Grypma, S. (2005b). Florence Nightingale's changing image, Part II: From ministering angel to modern mystic. Journal of Christian Nursing, 22(4), 6–13.

Nelson, S., & Gordon, S. (2004). The rhetoric of rupture: Nursing as a practice with a history? Nursing Outlook, 52(5), 255–261.

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