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Literature, Gossip, Lore

On Being a Good Nurse

Fowler, Marsha D.

Journal of Christian Nursing: April/June 2019 - Volume 36 - Issue 2 - p 77
doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0000000000000589
Department: Christian Ethics

Marsha D. Fowler, PhD, MDiv, MS, RN, FAAN, FRSA, served as colead writer and “Historian and Code Scholar” on the 2015 revision of the ANA Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements. Marsha is Senior Fellow and Professor at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California.

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Acknowledgment This column is modified from Fowler, Marsha. “(In)Forming Nursing's Ethics: Literature, Gossip, and Lore,” Keynote presentation, 19th International Nursing Ethics Conference and 4th International Ethics in Care Conference, “Gender, Justice and Care,” University of Cork, Cork, Ireland, September 1-2, 2018.



How do I know how to be a good nurse, good in a moral sense? Three fundamental sources are literature, gossip, and lore (Fowler, 2018). The extensive body of nursing ethics literature from the 1800s to the present enrobes nursing's ethical tradition of values and ideals. That literature includes nursing ethics textbooks aplenty, and hundreds of journal articles. But we have two other sources.

Gossip is an odd choice for moral guidance until we reclaim its earlier meaning. In Old English literature, godsib (today gossip) referred to one who acted as a sponsor at a baptism or served as a godparent. In Shakespeare, a gossip (2018) is “a woman's female friends invited to be present at a birth.” A 1661 work tells us why gossips were important: “They are as good evidence to prove where they were born, as if we had the deposition of the midwife, and all the gossips present at their mothers labours.” Gossips were witnesses who could legally attest to a live birth, its time, location, and maternal parentage.

The women who attended the birth of our profession in the late 1800s and early 1900s are the witnesses upon whom we rely for testimony of nursing's birthing labors—it was a live birth! For them, the emerging science was as important as the ethics of nursing and received equal attention. These gossips—Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Mary Adelaide Nutting, Lavinia Dock, Isabel Hampton Robb, and many more—have given us gossip literature that expresses nursing's values, ideals, and character, and what it is to be a good nurse, in a different way than the nursing textbooks. Here you have a personal reflection of the demands of nursing—what it means in terms of commitment and costs, the vicissitudes and rewards of practice, pride of profession, and more. This gossip literature is found in their diaries, personal journals, and letters. In some instances, as in the nurses who served during World War I, most of the eyewitness literature is in their wartime journals. There is good gossip here that can be instructive, as well as life-changing.

Guidance for being a good nurse also comes from lore—a body of traditions, knowledge, moral precepts, and wisdom on a subject, held by a particular group, and customarily passed by word of mouth (Lore, 2018). Sociologist Barbara Melosh (1982) writes about nursing lore:

Shaped in the common powerful experience of nurses' distinctive training, nursing's occupational culture was sustained, revised, reinterpreted, and passed on through networks that formed after graduation. It provided a rich source of lore, anecdotes, and prescriptions...sometimes it was written down...nursing journals, memoirs, didactic novels...More often it was an oral tradition, transmitted as nurses met...worked together...lived together... (p. 6)

In lore we see who we are to be within the context of the group to which we belong. Lore includes the transmission of moral expectations for nurse comportment. It may be communicated between a more experienced and less experienced nurse, between and among peers, by a group of the whole, by word or by deed. It is often transmitted in the end-of-shift report, as that which one would not wish to write down is communicated verbally. Lore is a rich, often casual, insightful and experiential, and congenial source of important information about ways of being a good nurse.

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  • What do you know of eyewitness, gossip literature that is heart-warming, at times heart-rending, but always instructive of what it means to be a good nurse?
  • In those times when nurses congregat, what is the lore you communicated that will move others to be a morally good nurse?
Fowler M. (2018). ‘(In)Forming Nursing's Ethics: Literature, Gossip, and Lore,’ Keynote presentation, 19th International Nursing Ethics Conference and 4th International Ethics in Care Conference, “Gender, Justice and Care,” University of Cork, Cork, Ireland, September 1-2, 2018.
Gossip. (2018). In Oxford English dictionary online. Retrieved from
Lore. (2018). In Oxford English dictionary online. Retrieved from
Melosh B. (1982). The physician's hand: Work culture and conflict in American nursing. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.
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