The nurse in Edinburgh c.1760-1860: Barbara Mortimer

The nurse in Edinburgh c.1760-1860: the impact of commerce and professionalisation

Barbara E Mortimer (2002)
University of Edinburgh, Department of Economic and Gender History

This study investigates the lives, work and organisation of independent nurses who worked in mid nineteenth century Edinburgh. Little was known of women in this occupation as no systematic study of women engaged in nursing prior to the introduction of formal nurse training has yet been attempted. The research focus lies around 1851 and 1861, the period that preceded the introduction of modern nurse training to the city in 1872. Important earlier developments are traced from the mid-eighteenth century.

Demographic data gathered from the enumerators books of the census of Edinburgh and Leith of 1851 and 1861 confirm that the majority of nurses were women. The data also reveal several sub-divisions among ‘nurses’ in the city. Three groups of practitioners have been selected for close study. The principal group comprises nurses who lived and worked independently in the city. Two other groups are included as their lives extend understanding of some aspects of the careers of independent nurses. These two groups are the independent midwives, whose numbers were diminishing in Edinburgh at this time, and finally nurses and midwives who worked in institutions, a location where their lives were controlled by others.[1] Biographies of individual nurses have been constructed using a wide range of sources. The nurses for whom the richest data have been collected belonged to the upper working class and the lower middle class. Their lives were organised and stable and they were able to assist their children prepare for careers of similar status. The biographies provide a rich resource from which to prepare a detailed portrait of this occupational group.

The study of these nursing careers is set in the context of the history of women’s work, Scottish history, the history of nursing and the history of Scottish medical professionalisation.

The dominant influence that impacted on the careers of elite independent nurses was the power of commerce in a market for luxury services in the city. A second significant factor was the professionalising activities of medical men. These were most visible in the contracting opportunities for independent midwives and the expanding opportunities for independent nurses. Thirdly, the most lucrative workplace for the independent nurses was in the homes of the middle and upper classes of the city. In this setting, women of superior status closely supervised nurses and they were required to conform to the moral standards of the middle class home. These three influences were applied in an environment of presbyterian probity where gendered roles were an accepted norm. They affected the selected groups of nurses with varying intensity but all three forces are traced in each setting.

The study is focussed in Edinburgh, a unique Scottish city throughout this period. The medical school and the doctors associated with it were of national and international stature. Patients were attracted from Britain and overseas to consult such eminent men as James Syme and James Young Simpson. Medical care could be described as a local industry. The city was unique in that so much medical activity was focused there. However the opportunities available to nurses in Edinburgh were repeated in other cities where rich patients and their families sought out reputable doctors and both parties needed the assistance of a nurse to complete the pattern of care.

[1] The inclusion of midwives in this study of nurses is discussed in detail in the thesis. The decision is based on the readiness of individual women to describe themselves as nurse or midwife with apparent indifference.