Nurses and Surgical Dressers: Medical Students' Impact on Hospital Nursing Work in Philadelphia and London, 1870 to 1910

Sheri Tesseyman, Jane Brooks, Christine E Hallett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review



Nineteenth-century nurse leader Eva Luckes argued that nursing and medicine were related but were actually separate endeavours with distinct realms of work. Over time, however, boundaries between nursing and medicine have been difficult to define. Examining factors that affected the dynamics of shifting boundaries between nursing and medicine in the past can increase understanding of the nature of nursing and nursing practice today. As hospitals are a major site of nursing and medical practice, they are a useful setting in which to examine boundaries between the two professions. With the development of voluntary hospitals built specifically to care for the sick, and the development of hospital-based medical and nursing schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nurses and physicians increasingly worked side by side to provide care. That joint endeavor meant that nursing developed in conjunction with medicine, and nursing practices were juxtaposed to physicians’ practices. No doubt, cultural variations in the division of labour between physicians and nurses also influenced nursing work. In this paper, we examine how differences in hospital medical practice in two distinct geographical and cultural settings—Philadelphia in the United States of America and London in the United Kingdom—affected the development of hospital nursing in these areas. We hypothesize that the constant presence of great numbers of medical students on hospital wards in London and their absence in Philadelphia contributed to nurses assuming more “medical work” in Philadelphia than in London. This difference in who focused on medical work subsequently contributed to divergent developments in American and British nursing. This paper will focus on how differences in clinical training for medical students in the United States versus the United Kingdom in the latter part of the nineteenth century contributed to more “medically focused” nursing in Philadelphia than in London. The role of nurses and medical students in dressing wounds is used as an example of a practice that existed on the boundary between nursing and medicine.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-141
Number of pages25
JournalNursing History Review
Issue number1
Early online date1 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2021


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