Why a Woman Should Become a Nurse

Florence NightingaleWhy a Woman Should Become a Nurse
By Florence Nightingale

Nursing requires more than a disappointment in love, the want of an object, a general disgust, or incapacity for other things, to turn a woman into a good nurse. A woman cannot become a nurse simply because that is what is expected of a woman who wants to enter the medical profession. A woman also should not become a physician simply because she needs to prove that she is equal to a man.  A woman needs to bring the best she has to offer the world, whether by being a nurse or a physician. She needs ignore the chatter from others and to listen to her own voice from within and simply be the best she can be.

What is True Nursing?
It is often said by women, that they cannot know anything of the laws of health, or what to do to preserve their children’s health, because they can know nothing of “Pathology,” or cannot “dissect,” – a confusion of ideas which it is hard to attempt to disentangle.  Pathology teaches the harm that disease has done. But it teaches nothing more.  We know nothing of the principle of health, the positive of which pathology is the negative, except from observation and experience.  And nothing but observation and experience will teach us the ways to maintain or to bring back the state of health.  It is often thought that medicine is the curative process.  It is no such thing; medicine is the surgery of functions, as surgery proper is that of limbs and organs.  Neither can do anything but remove obstructions; neither can cure; nature alone cures.  Surgery removes the bullet out of the limb, which is an obstruction to cure, but nature heals the wound.  So it is with medicine; the function of an organ becomes obstructed; medicine, so far as we know, assists nature to remove the obstruction, but does nothing more.  And what nursing has to do in either case, is to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.  Generally, just the contrary is done.  You think fresh air, and quiet and cleanliness extravagant, perhaps dangerous, luxuries, which should be given to the patient only when quite convenient, and medicine the sine qua non, the panacea.  If I have succeeded in any measure in dispelling this illusion, and in showing what true nursing is, and what it is not, my object will have been answered.

Notes on Nursing

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Disappointment in Love
Now for the caution: It seems a commonly received idea among men and even among women themselves that it requires nothing but a disappointment in love, the want of an object, a general disgust, or incapacity for other things, to turn a woman into a good nurse.  This reminds one of the parish where a stupid old man was set to be schoolmaster because he was “past keeping the pigs.” Apply the above receipt for making a good nurse to making a good servant.  And the receipt will be found to fail.  Yet popular novelists of recent days have invented ladies disappointed in love or fresh out of the drawing-room turning into the war-hospitals to find their wounded lovers, and when found, forthwith abandoning their sick-ward for their lover, as might be expected.  Yet in the estimation of the authors, these ladies were none the worse for that, but on the contrary were heroines of nursing.

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Nursing is an Art
What cruel mistakes are sometimes made by benevolent men and women in matters of business about which they can know nothing and think they know a great deal.  The everyday management of a large ward, let alone of a hospital – the knowing what are the laws of life and death for men, and what the laws of health for wards – (and wards are healthy or unhealthy, mainly according to the knowledge or ignorance of the nurse) – are not these matters of sufficient importance and difficulty to require learning by experience and careful inquiry, just as much as any other art?  They do not come by inspiration to the lady disappointed in love, nor to the poor workhouse drudge hard up for a livelihood.  And terrible is the injury which has followed to the sick from such wild notions!  In this respect (and why is it so?), in Roman Catholic countries, both writers and workers are, in theory at least, far before ours.  They would never think of such a beginning for a good working Superior or Sister of Charity.  And many a Superior has refused to admit a Postulant who appeared to have no better “vocation” or reasons for offering herself than these. It is true we make “no vows.”  But is a “vow” necessary to convince us that the true spirit for learning any art, most especially an art of charity, aright, is not a disgust to everything or something else?  Do we really place the love of our kind (and of nursing, as one branch of it) so low as this?  What would the Mère Angélique of Port Royal, what would our own Mrs. Fry have said to this?

What Will People Say?
I would earnestly ask my sisters to keep clear of both the jargons now current every where (for they are equally jargons); of the jargon, namely, about the “rights” of women, which urges women to do all that men do, including the medical and other professions, merely because men do it, and without regard to whether this is the best that women, can do; and of the jargon which urges women to do nothing that men do, merely because they are women, and should be “recalled to a sense of their duty as women,” and because “this is women’s work,” and “that is men’s,” and “these are things which women should not do,” which is all assertion, and nothing more.  Surely woman should bring the best she has, whatever that is, to the work of God’s world, without attending to either of these cries.  For what are they, both of them, the one just as much as the other, but listening to the “what people will say,” to opinion, to the “voices from without?”  And as a wise man has said, no one has ever done anything great or useful by listening to the voices from without.

You do not want the effect of your good things to be, “How wonderful for a woman!” nor would you be deterred from good things by hearing it said, “Yes, but she ought not to have done this, because it is not suitable for a woman.”  But you want to do the thing that is good, whether it is “suitable for a woman” or not.  It does not make a thing good, that it is remarkable that a woman should have been able to do it.  Neither does it make a thing bad, which would have been good had a man done it, that it has been done by a woman.  Oh, leave these jargons, and go your way straight to God’s work, in simplicity and singleness of heart.

•Nightingale is the founder of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, England.

This essay is an excerpt from Notes on Nursing, by Florence Nightingale; Foreword and edited by Michele G. Kunz

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About Michele G. Kunz

I am a nursing educator and AHA Certified Instructor and I specialize in providing AHA Certification classes in ACLS, BLS, and PALS to healthcare professionals and students. I am also a certified six-sigma green belt (CSSGB).
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