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International Nurses Day: History of UK Nursing

Updated: May 12




Today, 12th May 2022 - we celebrate nurses around the world and everything they do.

For many nurses, the skills of nursing or caring lie at the heart of their work. Until the mid-nineteenth century, nursing was not an activity which was thought to demand either skill or training. Nor did it command respect.

As Florence Nightingale was to put it, nursing was left to ‘those who were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stupid or too bad to do anything else'. The intimate body services to be done for the patient were considered to be unseemly or immodest for young unmarried or well-bred females, especially if not a family member. Cleaning and feeding another person were regarded as domestic tasks performed by servants.

Also, before 1880, the hospital treatment of illness was fairly rare. Where home services were adequate, a sick person was attended to by the family doctor and nursed either by female family members or servants. However, from the middle of the nineteenth century, the discovery and application of anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery advanced medical techniques and allowed all classes to seek treatment in hospitals. From the 1860s onwards, a series of nurses’ training schools began to produce fairly large numbers of educated women who were eagerly accepted by hospital authorities whose medical officers, patients and public opinion, in general, were demanding higher levels of nursing skill in the wards.” (University of Glasgow; www.gla.ac.uk).


This description sets the scene for the rise of professional nursing that has gained in status and scope since the late nineteenth century. The timeline below highlights key milestones in professional nursing, nursing education and advances in medical care that influence the practice of nurses in the mid to late twentieth century.

Timeline of Nursing History



Professionalisation of Nursing


It’s easy to see, that medical treatments and both professional nursing practice and education progressed considerably through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Nursing became an organised group, adopting the four key characteristics of a profession. Firstly the professions represent a highly skilled sector of the labour market with a defined body of specialised knowledge. This knowledge is transmitted to trainees who are prepared in institutions under the control of the profession; the knowledge base is extended through research. Secondly, there is a monopoly on the field of work in that practitioners must be registered by the state as being suitable to practice the profession and there is an agreement by substantial employers that only those registered will be given a job. Thirdly, there is autonomy in the organisation, development and definition of the nature of the work undertaken. This implies that only a member of the profession is competent to assess another professional’s work. Fourthly, there is a code of ethics that prohibits the exploitation of clients and regulates inter-professional relations.

All of these characteristics of a profession are now fully embedded in nursing in the UK. The specialised knowledge required to practice competently has expanded as new treatments have been discovered, necessitating enhanced knowledge and advanced professional decision-making skills. This underpinned the move to higher academic levels and migration of education from hospital-based schools, where the apprenticeship model of learning (and cheap labour) was common, to colleges and finally universities where all initial preparation is now at degree level. The early British Nurses Association led to the General Nursing Council being established in 1919; the role of registering members of the nursing profession was passed to the United Kingdom Central Council in 1979 and then to the Nursing and Midwifery Council in 2002 and these bodies also defined the scope of practice and codes of ethics.


The scope and status of nursing has changed since the days of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. The time is reflected on looking back on the standards of care at the time with pride, the responsibility they were afforded with acceptance and their rich, varied experiences with fondness. The transition taken place in nursing perhaps has not all been positive and the need for caring, compassionate and competent nurses remains as important today as ever.

Join us in celebrating, thanking and supporting nurses not just in the UK, but around the world this #InternationalNursesDay


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