Thursday, November 15, 2018

Nursing Careers in the 1800's

 by Cyndi Raye

Most women in the 1800's found it hard to establish themselves in certain careers. Especially in one such as nursing. It wasn't because they didn't want to, but the obstacles in the way were huge.

 It was a common practice for doctors in the 19th century to treat their nurses as if they were mere maids without their own minds. Nurses were not allowed to suggest  a way to treat the patient, but were to only administer aid when the doctor gave the go ahead. Many times a nurse would try to calm a sick or dying patient, to the doctor's dismay. Many doctors during that time period did not have a very sweet bedside manner, and when the nurse tried to help, she was usually reprimanded.

Much of the nursing in hospitals were done without proper schooling until later in the century. If a woman wanted to become a nurse, she would shadow an experienced senior nurse as an apprentice to learn the trade.

Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in London and had established a nursing school in 1860 at St. Thomas Hospital. Then, in 1873, Bellevue Hospital followed her lead and opened their first nursing school using her mode of training in New York. Students learned bedside manner, how to observe a patient's needs and the skills to do so.  The following job description shows how it was in 1887 in some areas.

Even then, doctors didn't allow their nurses to speak up or treat the patient. In one of my mail order bride books, Ellie of the Mail Order Brides of Wichita Falls, Nurse Ellie was a young lady who wanted to establish herself in the nursing field and make a difference. She had studied hard and wanted to contribute, but at every turn, the barriers were too high.

 However, every single time she spoke up it usually got her fired. Here's an excerpt from her book. Imagine you were a free thinking woman during this period. Nurse Ellie had spunk and liked to speak her mind:

“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Jacobs, there is no longer a position for you at this hospital.”

He wasn’t sorry one bit, that Ellie could see from where she stood. She clutched her hands so tight she may have winced if she hadn’t been trying hard not to let him see how upsetting his words were. She raised her chin a notch. No tears would be shed in front of this man. 

Dr. Tate was incorrigible. He was so miserable he hated everyone and everything, always finding fault with the nurses under his charge. What Ellie didn’t understand was why he was in the business of caring for people in the first place. It was obvious to everyone at the hospital he hated both nurses and patients alike, yet no one took it upon themselves to stop this madman from ruining people’s lives. 

Like he had just ruined hers.

Dr.Tate grunted before sitting back down at his desk. “Please gather your belongings and leave the premises. Upon termination, you will no longer be permitted to step foot in this hospital. Carry on.”

Ellie stood frozen to the spot for a moment. Should she do as the others had who lost their nursing position and nod politely, thanking him for the opportunity and experience to work here all these months?

No, not Ellie. 

Her biggest downfall was speaking the honest truth in any matter.

Dr. Tate looked up from the paperwork on his desk. “Well, Miss Jacobs, go on now.”

She pressed her knees together, pursed her mouth in a tiny pucker and squared round shoulders. “Dr. Tate, while I appreciate all this hospital has taught me-”

Her words were quickly interrupted. “No need to go on and on. We can’t afford to have nurses thinking for themselves. Your job was to stand behind the doctors and follow their direction, not go about taking matters in to your own hands, defying orders and diagnosing patients, for crying out loud.”

“Is there any chance this hospital will pen me a positive reference?”

He pushed the frames of his glasses in place. “I’m afraid not, Miss Jacobs. I’m afraid you’ve done yourself in on this one.”

“That’s what I presumed, Dr. Tate. Therefore, I want you to know my true feelings.”

He put up his hand. “It’s not necessary, Miss Jacobs. I understand your frustration at losing a position here. Perhaps you are not meant to be a nurse after all.”

“Poppycock!” She took a step forward, placing the knuckles of her fists on the desktop and leaned forward in an unladylike manner. “You, sir, are indeed one of the worst doctors in Charleston! Your patients are left wondering what is happening to them as you treat people as though they are pigs in a den and not of much consequence.”

“That will be enough!” Dr. Tate rose. He tore off his glasses and flung them to land on the untidy desk. “I’ll repeat the request for you to leave these premises, Miss Jacobs, before I have someone remove you.”

Ellie flung her head back to look up at the six foot doctor. “I am leaving, sir, of my own accord.”

He pressed his fingertips to the top of the desk and leaned forward as she had done. “It’s a shame you threw away a nursing career. No one will hire you now. I’ll make sure of this.”

“I don’t doubt you will but I’ve had my say. I am a nurse and will continue to practice. Maybe not here in Charleston, but somewhere. Good day.” 

Ellie marched from the doctor’s office, her head held high. She was glad she had told him what she thought even if it wasn’t ladylike. Several employees who heard the conversation tried not to stare as she grabbed her reticule from where it sat on the corner of the window pane and left the Roper Hospital behind.

Nurse Ellie was quite bold. She had spoken up in a time when women usually kept their mouths shut because they were afraid of being ridiculed or even fired. Many nurses were fired at the drop of a hat, especially if a doctor didn't care for them. In Charleston, where Ellie starts out, if a nurse was fired she usually wound up at the Charleston Orphan House, a far cry from a nursing career. There, in the dark, depressing atmosphere, a nurse would be no more than a maid for the children, ironing and washing clothes, cooking and taking care of orphans. Many women didn't dare to speak up like Ellie had.

If you'd like to learn more about what happens to Nurse Ellie, be sure to pick up your own copy at Amazon.


  1. interesting. thanks for sharing
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    1. Thanks for commenting. I learned so much about nursing while writing this book.

  2. Sounds like a great read. Im off to search Australia Amazon. Interesting information.

    1. If you don't find it on Australia Amazon, email me at and I'll make sure you get a copy.