M. Renee Benham


nursing-then-and-now-nursing-recordBeyond Nightingale: The Transformation of Nursing in Victorian and World War I 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.

Only relatively recently has paid nursing come to be viewed as a respectable profession for women. Early-nineteenth-century literature describes hired nurses as low-class, slovenly women who smoked, drank, and abused their patients. Middle-class British society feared that hired nurses were low-class, ignorant, unsympathetic, unfeminine, and too independent from men. Beyond Nightingale examines how literature from the early nineteenth century through the early twentieth century helped alleviate these fears and altered the public perception of nursing by presenting paid nurses as middle-class women who were sympathetic, selfless, and subservient to doctors. Many authors suggested that nursing ability was not dependent upon natural femininity or personal character, but relied on training and experience. By altering the public’s perception of paid nursing, literary portrayals of nursing facilitated its transformation from an extension of the feminine, domestic sphere into an efficient medical profession for women. Beyond Nightingale examines works by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, William Thackeray, and L. T. Meade, among others, to challenge the prevailing myth that Florence Nightingale single-handedly reformed nursing in the mid-1850s.

Beyond Nightingale considers not only traditional literary works, but also a variety of non-literary archival sources including nursing manuals, sanitary pamphlets, women’s periodicals, and Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) documents. Benham demonstrates how both literary and non-literary texts informed one another and contributed to a common conversation about the transformation of nursing care. With this wealth of sources, Benham traces the evolution of the literary representation of nursing from a denigrated and despised last resort for poor widows to an esteemed, efficient profession for middle-class British women.

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.