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Military and Naval Nursing Before Nightingale

Many people, including historians, assume that nursing in military hospitals was solely a male occupation before the Crimean War.  But, from the mid-18th century, the use of male orderlies was increasingly frowned upon and preference given to female nurses.  Many military medical men insisted on the suitability of women for this task and praised the work of nurses.  Army physician Robert Hamilton (1749-1830), for example, believed that nurses were “indispensably necessary,”¹ to the proper function of an army hospital.  A nurse, Hamilton suggested, “ought to be with the patient on all occasions, and almost constantly; since it is her duty to administer both drink and medicine with care and punctuality.”²

But what did nurses do?  In fact, nurses were responsible for the majority of daily patient care in military hospitals: dispensing medicines, washing patients, cleaning wards and bedding, and preparing and distributing meals. Some, like William Fergusson (1773-1846), the inspector-general of army hospitals during the Napoleonic Wars, believed that women were uniquely suited for these sorts of tasks.  For Fergusson it was “a perversion, in some degree, of a man’s nature, to make him a sick nurse; and the worst woman will generally make a better one, as being more handy and compassionate than an awkward clumsy man.”³  The presence of hundreds of nurses in military and naval hospitals attests to this position.


  1. Robert Hamilton, The Duties of a Regimental Surgeon Considered, volume I (London, 1787), 7.
  2. Ibid., 28.
  3. William Fergusson, Notes and recollections of a professional life (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1846), 63.