By Gail Pfeifer, MA, RN, AJN news director
I’m not a history buff, but my husband is. So I nicely went along on a recent trip with him to Virginia, visiting historic sites like Montpelier, Jamestown, Yorktown, and Appomattox. It was more fun than I’d anticipated and it really did open a door for me, showing me how much, and how little, has changed, especially in political behavior: When Cornwallis had to surrender to Washington, for example, he feigned illness and sent his second in command, General O’Hara, to do so. Washington, in return, would not accept the sword from O’Hara, directing him to his own second in command. Tit for tat.
One of the things I least expected from the National Park Service was a specific acknowledgment of nurses or nursing (except for maybe Clara Barton, who established the American branch of the International Red Cross). Yet there it was at one of our Civil War site stops: a note that Dorothea Dix had visited to review care of the Union soldiers.
Although she is best known for her work improving care for the mentally ill, Dix became Superintendent of Female Nurses for the Union during the Civil War, serving for the entire duration without pay. At that time, biographers say (variably) that she was 59 or 60 years old, a strong, unmarried woman of her times. Dix was a social reformer and far from politically correct for her day. They called her “Dragon Dix” because of her outspoken opinions and her “autocratic” approach to choosing nurses who could serve under her aegis—no hoop skirts, no jewelry, and preferably plain looking and over 30. Despite her nickname, and perhaps (depending on how you view appropriate behavior in women) her flaws, you can find her described online, along with Barton, as an “Angel of the Battlefield.”
These polar-opposite labels tweaked my interest in nursing history and made me wonder: How far have we come as nurses in the eyes of those we serve, and how do these labels end up persisting over decades? Are we either dragons or angels, or will we finally be acknowledged as professionals with individual, imperfect personalities who work to improve health care? When new nurses look at nursing history 150 years from now, what doors will they see opened, by us, in 2011?