Background. The history of nursing is almost exclusively a history of women's accomplishments despite the fact that, as early as the fourth and fifth centuries, men have worked as nurses. This perpetuates the notion of men nurses as anomalies. It also provides insight into the gendered nature of nursing and nurses’ work within patriarchal culture.
Aim. This paper examines the history of men in nursing in Canada, Britain and the United States of America, and offer insights into the ways in which gender relations and the ideological designation of nursing as women's work have excluded, limited and, conversely, advanced the careers of men nurses.
Method. A search of the literature was carried out using CINAHL, PubMed and Sociological Abstracts databases. Search words included: male nurses, history, nursing, Canada, Britain, United Kingdom and USA.
Discussion. Men's participation in nursing reveals that prevailing definitions of masculinity have acted as a powerful barrier to men crossing the gender divide and entering the profession. At extraordinary times such as war and acute nursing shortages, gender boundaries are negotiable. For those men who have crossed over into nursing, a gendered division of labour is evidenced by men nurses’ long-standing association with mental health nursing and, more recently, with their disproportionate attainment of masculine-congruent leadership and specialty positions.
Conclusion. Failure to recognize men's participation in nursing leaves men nurses with little information about their professional background and historical position. It also maintains the invisibility of gender relations that have shaped the experience of men and women nurses alike. Such relations, understood within their broader social context, remain poorly understood and hence uninterrupted, to the detriment of nurses and the profession of nursing.