M. Renee Benham


nursing-then-and-now-nursing-recordBeyond Nightingale: The Transformation of Nursing in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

Nursing programs today are highly-competitive, and the requirements for entry focus on education and training, rather than on personal moral character. Since nurses interact with us often when we are most vulnerable, we expect quality care with a sympathetic hand. They hold a sacred space in our hearts, and yet any visit to a costume shop during Halloween reveals the taint of deviant sexuality that still haunts the profession. None of these things seem unusual or out-of-the-ordinary to us, and yet they were each hard fought battles in the nineteenth century. Nursing was not always respectable. Nineteenth-century nurses were largely low-class, slovenly, drinking, and smoking old women who were described by the author of an 1828 nursing manual as “an unavoidable evil” (The Good Nurse 28-29). This hired nurse was the last thing a person wanted in their home, yet there was no alternative. By the end of the century, however, this had radically changed as tens of thousands of middle and upper-class young women volunteered as nurses in Voluntary Aid Detachments during World War I. Florence Nightingale contributed to the professionalization of nursing, yet she was just one moment in an exciting cultural transformation. This project looks beyond Nightingale to chart a comprehensive literary history of nursing through the nineteenth century and WWI. I argue that nineteenth-century literature facilitated the nursing transformation by systematically addressing and alleviating social concerns tied to women entering the public sphere as paid caregivers: fears that these women would be too independent from men, low-class, uneducated, and unfeminine.

Check out my website Beyond Nightingale to learn more about this project.


I am also exploring the role of sanitary reform in creating employment for middle-class women in public health. I am particularly interested in the Ladies’ Sanitary Association, a powerful organization founded and funded by aristocratic women in the forefront of British politics and the Women’s Movement.

Author: M. Renee Benham

I am an English Professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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