Cover Story: A Necessary Examination of the Past

The Army Nurse
By: Mary Sheintoch

Academic authors from many disciplines have analyzed the impact of social phenomena on the nursing profession. It is now widely understood that a thorough exploration of the connection between societal forces and nursing’s narrative story is important for those who value nursing’s past as well as its present and future contributions to healthcare. Students of nursing history recognize that war has always been a significant factor in the evolution of the profession. In particular, the United States Civil War and World War II propelled nursing forward in numerous ways. During both conflicts, many unique individuals expended the labor and sacrificed their personal happiness in order to make these advancements possible. However, most maturational processes entail “growing pains” which are a necessary accompaniment to development. Consequently, while both conflicts spurred exceptional progress in nursing, they also resulted in some detrimental aftereffects that have persisted until the present time.

The Civil War and World War II “left indelible marks on the status of women, the professional development of nursing, and the national environment of health care” (Brunk, 1997, p. 217). Prior to the Civil War, the profession of nursing was virtually non-existent, and very few women of any means or reputation would ever consider nursing as a vocation. Yet, within a span of eighty years, President Franklin Roosevelt was so alarmed by the nursing shortage both here and abroad that he actually considered a draft to rectify the drastic need for nurses. The change in public perception of nursing as well as the healthcare system’s undisputable reliance on nurses was accomplished within a relatively short period of time.

Despite the stunning achievements garnered by the nursing profession during these conflicts, there were negative aftereffects that accompanied these movements forward. Although the Civil War and World War II undeniably provided the context for both individual and professional growth, some of the lasting consequences of the progression resulted in difficulty in the establishment of future autonomy for nurses who had performed so admirably during wartime. Likewise, the unique contributions made by individuals were sometimes forgotten during the national periods of readjustment following the wars resulting in a profession whose demographic remained largely white and female despite the contributions of a diverse group of people. These undesired effects remained problematic for years to come. Nevertheless, the nursing profession can use the opportunity that the persistent dilemmas offer to recognize the importance of research that examines the historical context and narrative progression of nursing. Further exploration of these topics can provide the valuable insight needed to enable the profession to move forward to a better tomorrow.


Brunk, Q. (1997). Nursing at War: Catalyst for Change. Annual Review of Nursing Research, 15, 217-236.


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