Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2007—2008 Forum on Origins
History of Nursing
Owning Origins: Nursing in 19th Century Philadelphia
If one wishes to speak of origins one must also address the issue of ownership of origins narratives. Who has the power to construct such narratives – and how do different modes of inquiry become vested with particular kinds of authority in particular contexts? Narratives about the origins of modern nursing stand a fascinating case in point. Historians and literary theorists have long told stories that seek to explicate what they see as the relatively disempowered subject position of nurses. Many nurses, on the other hand, dismiss such stories as irrelevant theorizing divorced from what they see as more complicated realities of their practice and their social world. This project seeks rapprochement between these different perspectives in a reconstructed narrative about the origins of modern nursing in 19th century Philadelphia. It seeks the origins of the discipline in multiple perspectives, and it uses textual and archival data to probe the mid to late nineteenth century experiences of several generations of lay and medical Philadelphia men and women who supported and sought the medical education of women – as physicians, as nurses, and as mothers.