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Keywords:

  • history;
  • nineteenth century;
  • religious nurses;
  • moral government

This paper reexamines the role of the early nineteenth century nurses, conventionally depicted in nursing histories as the well-meaning but untrained Catholic nursing nuns or, in post-Reformation Europe, servants and fellow patients. It will be argued here that professional and capable nursing had begun to transform the care of the sick poor and to demonstrate its importance to the success of medical/surgical innovation long before Florence Nightingale and her call to Scutari. Moreover, the case is put that the emergence of nineteenth century forms of care for the sick occurred in response to the pressing problems of population management in Ireland, Great Britain and North America. The pastoral concerns of the first Irish nurses, with their expertise in both the spiritual and material domains, provided the prototype for what was to follow: a spiritual form of life that addressed the governmental concerns of its time. Finally, it is argued that given the overt moral imperatives of nineteenth century nurses of all persuasions, the depiction of nursing history as a crossing from the religious to the secular domain is challenged.