Category Archives: Nursing

Remembering the Nurses of WW I (II)

“saving bits from the wreckage”

[The second of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

The term “blood bath” is always used metaphorically, even in its wartime sense of  a bloody massacre in which lives are lost.   Often it is used more loosely still, as in the crushing of opponents in sports or business or the purging of employees at a company.  “There Could Be a Bloodbath in Sports Media” reads one headline.[1]

For World War I nurses working in Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs) and field hospitals on the Western Front, however,  blood bath could take on a startling literality.  Here is Beatrice Hopkinson writing in the fall of 1917 at the height of the fourth battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), after a general hospital close to her own took a direct hit.   She and an orderly began washing sheets and bedding of the bombed-out hospital in a big bath tub:  “Soon we seemed to be dabbling in a sea of blood.  When the lights were allowed on we looked at one another and we, too, looked as though we had been in a slaughterhouse.  Our clothing was blood stained up to our chins; arms and faces too.”  Things could be worse still in the operating room, which during major rushes became “a slaughter house,” a blood bath where ambulance drivers, aiding the exhausted nurses, “would seize a mop and pail and swipe up some of the blood from the sloppy floor, or even hold a leg or arm while it was sawn off.”[2]

Hours before the fate of wounded soldiers was decided, it was nurses – not emergency room physicians or combat-trained EMS providers – who triaged incoming wounded, determining which soldiers required emergency treatment for shock; which immediate surgery; which a ward bed to sleep and await treatment; and which quiet removal to the moribund tent to die.  Surgeons, who during battles might be operating 12-14 hours a day, had nothing to do with the process.  It fell to the trained nurses, the Sisters, to deploy what resources they had to do the sorting, and then to  stabilize as quickly as possible those wounded who could be stabilized.

What resources could they summon?  How, for example, did they identify wounded soldiers in shock?  Absent blood pressure meters and stethoscopes, much less lab studies and scans, they relied on their hands; their hands became instruments of differential diagnosis.  Here is Mary Borden’s powerful rendering of her work in the reception hut of a Belgium Casualty Clearing Station:

It was my business to sort out the wounded as they were brought in from the ambulances and to keep them from dying before they got to the operating rooms:  it was my business to sort out the nearly dying from the dying.  I was there to sort them out and tell how fast life was ebbing in them.  Life was leaking away in all of them; but with some there was no hurry, with others it was a case of minutes. . . . My hand could tell of itself one kind of cold from another.  They were all half-frozen when they arrived, but the chill of their icy flesh wasn’t the same as the cold inside them when life was almost ebbed away.  My hands could instantly tell the difference between the cold of the harsh bitter night and the stealthy cold of death.  Then there was another thing, a small fluttering thing.  I didn’t think about it or count it.  My fingers felt it.  I was in a dream, led this way and that by my cute eyes and hands that did many things, and, seemed to know what to do.[3]

Thus the hands-on method of recognizing what was termed, in the idiom of the time,  “wound shock.”  For soldiers who arrived off the battlefield in shock, it was nurses who sought to stabilize them by mastering the complicated procedure of pumping saline solution either subcutaneously or intravenously.  Why complicated?  The patients had to be kept warm, with saline kept at 120 degrees and air kept out of the tubes.  And the entire procedure had to be performed aseptically in huts or tents that, depending on the season, could be stifling or freezing.

Of course, soldiers off the Front might bleed out even before shock set in.  Blood transfusions were not available in WWI until the United States entered the war in 1917, bringing with it transfusion advocates like Boston’s Oswald Robertson, who was invited to British field hospitals to teach transfusion technique and also to show how citrated blood collected from Type O (universal) donors could be stored and shipped.  But even in large base hospitals, transfusion remained “a complicated job under the very best of circumstances.”[4]  It was never an option in most reception huts of CCSs and field hospitals.  So nurses managed hemorrhage with what they had:  artery compression, tourniquets, and a variety of constrictive bandages.  Skill and reaction time often determined whether soldiers even made it to the surgeons.  Following what stabilization the nurses could provide, surgical cases were rushed to the X-ray hut and then to the attached “theatre hut.” There surgeons relied on still other nurses, the “theatre sisters,” to assist them at the operating table.

Nurses’ role as surgical assistants usually continued  in the operating theatres of the  base hospitals to which survivors were subsequently sent for more extensive repair.  In the chaotic overflow of wounded that followed major battles, when as many as seven operating tables might be in continuous use around the clock for two weeks, they really had no choice.  “In ten days,” reported Helen Boylston from her front line field hospital in late March, 1917, “we have admitted four thousand eight hundred and fifty-three wounded, sent four thousand to Blighty [England], have done nine hundred and thirty-five operations.”  And then, with obvious pride,  “– and only twelve patients have died.”[5]

“One doctor and one nurse work at each table,” Julia Stimson wrote her parents from Base Hospital 21 near Rouen several months later,

and you can imagine what surgical work the nurse has to do, no mere handing of instruments and sponges, but sewing and tying up and putting in drains while the doctor takes the next piece of shell out of another place.  Than after fourteen hours of this, with freezing feet, to a meal of tea and bread and jam, and off to rest if you can in a wet bell tent in a damp bed without sheets, after a wash with a cupful of water.[6]

Even the auxiliary nurses were co-opted for surgical duty.  Kate Norman Derr, the well-off daughter of a former Medical Director in the U.S. Navy, was studying art in France when war broke out in 1914.  Resolved to aid the French cause, she volunteered at local hospitals before earning a nursing certificate from the French Red Cross.  In September, 1915 she reported to a French field hospital in the Marne Valley where, assigned to the operating ward, she assisted the surgeon in the 25 or more operations performed daily.  Horrified by the wounds she encountered, she nonetheless relished her newfound surgical identity.  “I think you would sicken with fright if you could see the operations that a poor nurse is called upon to perform,” she wrote her family, referring to “the putting in of drains, the washing of wounds so huge and ghastly as to make one marvel at the endurance that is man’s, the digging about for bits of shrapnel.  I assure you that the word responsibility takes a special meaning here.” For Derr, it was the struggle itself, “the sense that one is saving bits from the wreckage,” that shoved aside the sense of being “mastered by the unutterable woe.”[7]

Surgical technique was taught by surgeons who then relegated certain aspects of complex multi-wound operations to the nurses.  Shell fragments and shrapnel often lodged in different parts of a soldier’s body, in which case surgeons concentrated on the most penetrative, life threatening wounds while the nurses, forceps in hand, dealt with the more manageable, if far from minor, wounds.  The complex wound management that followed surgery, on the other hand, was almost entirely in the nurses’ hands.  It began once more in reception huts, where nurses determined which wounds required a surgeon’s attention and which they could handle themselves.  For smaller wounds – the term is relative – nursing care became surgical care:  nurses irrigated wound beds with saline solution and then debrided the wounds, using sterile probes to locate and remove shrapnel, bone fragments, embedded clothing, and debris.  Finally, they dressed the wound with the antiseptics then available – iodine, carbolic acid, hydrogen peroxide, perchloride of mercury, sodium hypochlorite, boracic acid, salicylic acid, chloride of zinc, potassium permaganate, either alone or in combination, in liquid or paste form.  Given the plethora of options and toxicity of the more effective antiseptics, choosing the optimal dressing for a particular soldier was no simple matter.

For soldiers with large and infected open wounds – the “gaping wounds” or “horribly bad wounds” or  “wounds so huge and ghastly of which the nurses wrote[8] – it was nurses who mastered the intricacies of the novel and highly effective Carrel-Dakin irrigation method, which saved countless lives and limbs.  Here a weak solution of sodium hypochlorite continuously circulated in the wound via a complicated setup in which a glass container fixed at the head of the bed fed tubes with four or five separate nozzles, each connected to another small rubber tube packed into a different part of the wound.  The whole affair was held in place with bandages and an adjustable clamp on the main tube to regulate the amount of antiseptic fed into the wound.[9]

Madame Carrel demonstrating the Carrel-Dakin method in a French field hospital in 1917

In cases of compound fracture, nurses themselves usually followed cleaning, irrigation, debridement, and wound dressings with splinting.  Back on the ward, with or without a surgeon’s assistance, they began Carrel-Dakin treatment and monitored the fractures, alert, for example, to obstructed circulation.  Taking these nursing activities in their totality, Christine Hallett has every reason to conclude that WWI nurses emerged from their European tours as wound care practitioners, adding that, in the rushes that  followed major battles, professional boundaries dissolved and their work merged with that of surgeons.[10]

Nurses of the Civil War were no less heroic, if in a different way.   They were heroic simply in overcoming the resistance of surgeons and military officers to their presence right off the battlefield, exposed to the naked bodies of wounded men.  They were heroic in battling corrupt quartermasters and stewards who withheld supplies and food parcels from the wounded, not to mention racist orderlies who brutalized the wounded, especially African-Americans.  And they were heroic in providing comfort care in the tradition of Florence Nightingale, struggling against the system to keep the wounded dry, warm, and adequately fed, “mothering” them with the same compassion as their granddaughters on the Front.

But Civil War nursing lacked the procedural underpinnings of Great War nursing.  There was no “scientific nursing” to do because scientific nursing only emerged after the war.  The authority they achieved was moral and occasionally administrative.  In the latter cases, when nurses became powerful Head Matrons and even founders of their own field hospitals, their authority was typically wrestled from surgeons and officers who never stopped hoping they would pack up and go home.  Nurses from elite families – Hannah Ropes, Sophronia Bucklin, Kate Cumming, Clara Barton – sounded off and got results.  But the results were moral, not professional, victories.  There was no system of triaging for nurses to implement; no protocol in place for cleaning and irrigating infected wounds with saline solution before dressing them with potent antiseptics.  Nor were Civil War nurses trained to perform minor surgery in reception tents or to assist surgeons in the operating tent.  Very occasionally, a Civil War nurse would rise above the morale-sapping gender prejudice of her camp and find herself alongside an operating surgeon, but she was the heroic exception to the rule.

The heroism of the nurses of WWI has to do with the manner in which they rose to their historical moment, bringing into their operational domain major developments in scientific medicine of the past half century.  Consider only the birth of bacteriology; the derivative understanding of antisepsis, asepsis, and sterilization; the development of antiseptics and serum therapy; and major advances in wound management and surgical technique.  These developments, conjoined in a combat workplace that relied on collegial staff relationships, enlarged nurses’ responsibilities in a procedural direction.  Unlike Civil War nurses, the nurses of World War I initiated medical treatments and performed medical procedures, and they did so without abandoning their traditional obligation to provide care that was calming, comforting, and reassuring.  Indeed, with the catastrophic wounding of body and mind made possible by World War I weaponry, the provision of comfort often deepened into supportive psychotherapy and end of life counseling.  Psychiatric nursing was born in the CCSs and field hospitals of WWI.  The well-trained nurse practitioners of today, empowered in many states to practice medicine (or is it “medicalized” nursing?) with little or no medical supervision, have nothing on their gallant forebears of a century ago.



[2] Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1434; N.A.,  A War Nurse’s Diary: Sketches from a Belgian Field Hospital (Cornwall, UK: Diggory, 2005), loc 805-820.

[3] Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (ed. H. Hutchison (London: Hesperus[1928] 2008), 95-96.

[4] Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 123.

[5] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Washburn, 1927), loc 497.

[6] Stimson, Finding Themselves, 142.

[7] Kate Norman Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss”:  Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by Richard C. Cabot (Boston: Butterfield, 1916), 33.  My great thanks to Alan Kohuth for sending me his original copy of Dere’s letters.

[8] For example, Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 161, 203; Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY:  Washburn, 1927), loc 463; Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss,” 33.

[9] The Carrel-Dakin method was devised by Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon, and Henry Dakin, an English chemist, who met in the lab of a field hospital near the forest of Compiegne in France in late 1914.  Carrel developed the solution and Dakin devised the apparatus to deliver it.  The components of the solution, incidentally, had to be combined in a precise ratio to provide wound sterilization without causing tissue irritation – another procedural feat of the WWI nurses, who prepared and tested every batch of solution from scratch.  Their task was greatly simplified in 1917, when Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, New Jersey began producing the components in sealed ampoules and vials in the prescribed ratios.  Successful use of the method was reported in several articles in the British Medical Journal during the final years of the war.  One in particular paid tribute to the Sisters, “whose careful attention to detail largely contributed to the success obtained in the use of the Carrel-Dakin method.”  J. S. Dunne, “Notes on Surgical Work in a General Hospital – With Special Reference to the Carrel-Dakin Method of Treatment,” BMJ, 2:283-284, 1918, quoted at 284.

[10] Christine E. Hallett, Containing Trauma:  Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 56-59, 46.  Anyone writing about nursing in World War I owes an enormous debt to Hallett, whose two exemplary studies, Containing Trauma (op. cit.) and Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War (NY: OUP, 2014) provide far greater detail of each of the nursing activities I touch on here.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (1)

“Real war at last.  Can hardly wait.  Here we go!”

[The first of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

It was the all-too-common story of the WWI nurses, the narrative thread that linked the vagaries of their wartime experiences.  The war was to be the adventure of a lifetime. The opportunity to serve on the Western Front was not to be missed, not by hospital-trained nurses and not by lightly trained volunteer nurses.  For both groups, the claim of duty was suffused with the excitement of grand adventure.  Beginning in the spring of 1917, the war abroad was the event of the season.  Julia Stimson, a Vassar graduate who, as superintendent of nursing at Barnes Hospital, led the St. Louis base hospital unit to Europe in May, 1917, was overwhelmed with the honor bestowed on her and the opportunities it promised.  “To be in the front ranks in this most dramatic event that ever was staged,” she wrote her mother, was “all too much good fortune for any one person like me.”  For 28-year-old Shirley Millard, a Red Cross volunteer nurse from Portland, Oregon rushed to a field hospital near Soissons in March, 1918, the prospect of nursing work at Chateau Gabriel, close to the Front, was a dream come true:  “It is so exciting and we are all thrilled to have such luck.  Real war at last.  Can hardly wait.  Here we go!” “I haven’t the least fear or worry in the world.  Am ready for anything,” averred Minnesotan Grace Anderson, a reserve nurse and nurse-anesthetist who embarked from New York harbor in July, 1918.  Serving in a base hospital or, more exciting still, in a field hospital or casualty clearing station only miles from the Front, was to be invited to the Grand Cotillion.  Volunteer and army nurses alike were typically well-bred young women of substance, often upper-class substance. They were adventuresome and patriotic and given over to a sense of  duty informed by literary culture, not battlefield experience.  So they experienced  happiness on receiving the call; they would make their families proud.[1]

But their sense of exhilaration at being invited to the Patriotic Ball quickly gave way to stunned amazement at the “work” before them.  The wounds of French, British, and, soon enough, American troops were literally unimaginable to them and then, in the fevered atmosphere of post-battle “rushes,” wrenchingly imaginable, indeed omnipresent. They grew familiar with the horrid stench of gas gangrene, which crackled beneath the surface of the infected body part or parts and almost always presaged quick death. Under the mentoring of senior nurses, the Sisters, young American women learned how to prep patients for surgery.  In the process, they encountered cases in which “there are only pieces of men left.”  And yet, having no choice, they quickly made their peace with the stumps of severed limbs and concavities of missing stomachs, faces and eyes and began to help clean, irrigate, and dress what remained, before and after surgery, if surgery could even be attempted.  Like their seniors, they learned to remain unflinching in the face of the many soldiers who arrived “unrecognizable as a human being.”  And they retained composure before soldiers as young as sixteen or seventeen  — “children,” they would say — who arrived at Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs) caked in mud and blood and covered with lice – children with three, five, nine, even eleven wounds.  They learned to accept that many soldiers would die in a matter of hours or days, but to join this realization to an obligation to provide what comfort they could.  They ended up working hard to keep the dying alive long enough to warm up and pass under morphine and chloroform, all the while holding their nurse-mother’s hand.[2]

They could not operate on Rochard and amputate his leg, as they wanted to do.  The infection was so high, into the hip, it could not be done.  Moreover, Rochard had a fractured skull as well.  Another piece of shell had pierced his ear, and broken into his brain, and lodged there.  Either wound would have been fatal, but it was the gas gangrene in his torn-out thigh that would kill him first.”[3]

Here is  “a poor youngster with both legs broken, both arms wounded, one eye shot out and the other badly damaged,” there a “poor lad” who “had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes.  He was quite calm, and very tired.  He said, ‘Shall I need an operation?  I can’t see anything’.”  Within a week of arrival at her field hospital, Shirley Millard wrote of “bathing [a soldier’s] great hip cavity where a leg once was,” while “a long row of others, their eyes fastened upon me, await their turn.  And she followed with the kind of litany offered by many others:  “Gashes from bayonets. Flesh torn by shrapnel.  Faces half shot away.  Eyes seared by gas; one here with no eyes at all.  I can see down into the back of his head.” Helen Dore Boylston, an MGH-trained nurse who served with the Harvard Medical Unit from 1915 on, presents an indelible image that affected her for life and  affects us still:

There were strings of from eight to twenty blind boys filing up the road, clinging tightly and pitifully to each other’s hands, and led by some bedraggled limping youngster who could still see . . . I wonder if I’ll every be able to look at marching men anywhere again without seeing those blinded boys, with five and six wound stripes on their sleeves, struggling painfully along the road.[4]

A soldier with gangrenous wounds oozing everywhere might morph into a “mass of very putrid rottenness long before he died.”  Such was the experience of Edith Appleton, who continued:  “The smell was so very terrible I had to move him right away from everyone, and all one could do was dress and redress. Happily I don’t think he could smell it himself but I have never breathed a worse poison.”[5]

All too soon after arrival, then, the cheery young American nurses beheld the fearless young soldiers – or remnants thereof – who came to clearing stations and base hospitals in funereal processions of ambulances. The fearless young men had become “wretched, restless beings.”  For Shirley Millard, “The crowded, twisted bodies, the screams and groans, made one think of the old engraving in Dante’s Inferno.  More came, and still more.”  In Helen Boylston’s field hospital, a “rush” during the German offensive of late March, 1918 brought 1,100 wounded to her base hospital in 24 hours, with three operating teams performing some 90 emergency operations that night and the nights to follow.  The operating room nurse, she recalled, “walked up and down between the tables with a bottle of aromatic spirits of ammonia in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other, ready to pounce on the next person who wilted.” At Beatrice Hopkinson’s CCS 47, just outside Amiens, the situation was even worse.  During the March rush many thousands of patients passed through the doors in only a few days and kept seven operating tables working day and night.[6]

And so the narratives captured in these diaries, journals, and memoirs turn a corner into blackness, as the nurses themselves undergo a kind of existential decomposition.  The volunteer nurses in particular, many little older than the combatants, became war-weary and war-wise in ways that choked off the childish exhilaration with which they had embarked. They found themselves at the threshold of their own nonnegotiable no-woman’s land. The nurse, wrote Mary Borden in The Forbidden Zone,

is no longer a woman.  She is dead already, just as I am – really dead, past resurrection.  Her heart is dead.  She killed it.  She couldn’t bear to feel it jumping in her side when Life, the sick animal, choked and rattled in her arms.  Her ears are deaf; she deafened them.  She could not bear to hear Life crying and mewing.  She is blind so that she cannot see the torn parts of men she must handle.  Blind, deaf, dead – she is strong, efficient, fit to consort with gods and demons – a machine inhabited by the ghost of a woman – soulless, past redeeming, just as I am – just as I will be.[7]

Nurses bore up, but in the process many were ground down, their pre-war values pulverized into dust.  Comprehending trench warfare in bodily perspective, they became freighted with the pointlessness of the horror, the multitude of mutilated, infection-saturated, and lifeless young bodies.  It was, for Helen Boylston, less tragic than unutterably stupid.

Today a ditch is full of Germans, and tomorrow it is full of Englishmen.  Neither side really wants the silly muddy ditch, yet they kill each other persistently, wearily, ferociously, patiently, in order to gain possession of it.  And whoever wins, it has won – nothing.[8]

They pondered the paradox of pain – the impossibility of knowing its nature in another along with the inability to nurse without imagining it.  They grew into a capacity for shame – shame in  their own strength, in their ability to stand firm and straight alongside a bedside “whose coverings are flung here and there by the quivering nerves beneath it.”  They empathized with shell-shocked patients who, having endured the prospect of “glorious death” under the guns, were sent home “to face death in another form. Not glorious, shameful.”  And finally there was the shame, thinly veiled, attendant to witnessing the unremitting pain of the dying.  “No philosophy,” reflected Enid Bagnold, “helps the pain of death.  It is pity, pity, pity, that I feel, and sometimes a sort of shame that I am here to write at all.”[9]

And then, as hostilities drew to a close, there were the larger reflections, the alterations of life philosophy that grew out of nursing their boys. For Helen Boylston,

The war has done strange things to me.  It has given me a lot and taken away a lot.  It has taught me that nothing matters, really.  That people do not matter, and things do not matter, and laces do not matter, except for a minute.  And the minute is always now.[10]

For Shirley Millard, Armistice Day and the immediate dismissal of her unit of volunteer nurses marked her epiphany:

Only then did the enormous crime of the whole thing begin to come home to me.  All very well to celebrate, I thought, but what about Charley?  All the Charlies? What about Donnelly, Goldfarb, Wendel, Auerbach? And Rene?  And the hundreds, thousands of others.”[11]

The enormity of the crime and the absurd reasoning that justified it coalesced in the wartime essays of Ellen LaMotte and Mary Boyden, one recurrent theme of which is the impossibility of a good death in war, where the very effort to “restore” bodies and minds that are shattered, literally and figuratively, becomes oxymoronic.  War, they insist, occurs in an alternate universe where any claim to morality is, from the standpoint of ordinary life, self-willed delusion.  In this universe, surgeons function as cavalier automatons and even life-saving surgery is specious, because the lives saved, more often than not, are no longer human lives, psychologically or physically. In this alternate universe, death withheld, ironically, is the ultimate act of inhumanity.[12]

What makes the nurses of World War I gallant is that so many of them were able to bracket their encroaching horror, with its undercurrents of anger, depression, and numbing – and simply care for their patients.  They were able to function as nurses in a nurses’ hell.  Military directives pushed them to an even lower circle of the Inferno, since the nurses’ primary task, they were told over and over, was to get injured troops back to the Front as soon as possible.  They were to fix up serviceable (and hence service-able) soldiers so that they could be reused at least one more time before breakdown precluded further servicing and the soldier’s obligation to serve further.

But the nurses knew better and unfailingly did better.  Nursing practice, it turns out, had its own moral imperative, so that military directives were downplayed, often cast to the wind.  As the nursing historian Christine Hallett observes, the emotional containment nurses provided for suffering and needy soldiers did not – indeed could not – preclude caring.[13]  In essays to follow, I hope to explore further the remarkable elements of this caring, which blurred the boundary between comfort care and healing and took nursing practice into the domains of emergency medicine, infectious disease management, surgery, and psychotherapy.  It is as agents of care and caring that the nurses of World War I rose to the status of gallants.  Flying in the face of military priorities and surgical fatalism, they bravely dispensed cure in a manner true to the word’s etymology, the Latin curare, a taking care of that privileges the patient’s welfare above all else.


[1] Julia, C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 3-4.; Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections, ed. E. T. Gard (New Orleans: Quid Pro, 2011), location in Kindle edition (loc), 388; Shari Lynn Wigle, Pride of America: The Letters of Grace Anderson, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, World War I (Rockville, MD: Seaboard, 2007), 9.

[2] Agnes Warner, ‘My Beloved Poilus’ (St. John: Barnes, 1917), loc 75; Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. V. Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1425; Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Washburn, 1927), loc 463; Enid Bagnold, A Diary Without Dates (London: Heinemann, 1918),  125: “Among his eleven wounds he has two crippled arms.”

[3] Ellen N. La Motte, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse (NY: Putnam’s, 1916), 51-52.

[4] Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front: First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 138, 161; Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 428; Boylston, Sister, loc 463.

[5] Dorothea Crewdson, Dorothea’s War: A First World War Nurse Tells her Story, ed. Richard Crewdson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013, 2013), loc 1189; Appleton, Nurse at the Front, 189.

[6] Crewdson, Dorothea’s War, loc 1192; Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 388; Boylston, Sister, loc 1101; Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell, loc 1719, 1780.

[7] Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone, ed. H. Hutchison (London: Hesperus, 1928/2008), 44.

[8] Boylston, Sister, loc 648.

[9] Bagnold, Diary without Dates, loc 25, 104; LaMotte, Backwash of War, 139.

[10] Boylston, Sister, loc 1373.

[11] Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 1562.

[12] All the brief essays in LaMotte’s The Backwash of War and Borden’s The Forbidden Zone circle around these and related themes.  Among them,  I was especially moved by LaMotte’s  “Alone,” “Locomotor Ataxia,” and “A Surgical Triumph,”  and Borden’s “Rosa,” “Paraphernalia,” and “In the Operating Room.”

[13] Christine E. Hallett, Containing Trauma:  Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 177.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

“Scope of Practice” Minefields

“. . . my clinical practice as a women’s health NP began in the mid-1970s.  My colleagues who had gone on to academic careers questioned my commitment to nursing and to nursing values.  A common question was ‘Are you a nurse, or are you a mini-doc?’  My answer was, is, and will always be:  ‘I am a nurse with primary care skills.  I take care of my patients within a nursing framework. . . . my values lie in nursing, not in the medical model.  I care for my patients as a fully prepared, primary care provider of women.” – Judith A. Berg & Mary Ellen Roberts, “Recognition, Regulation, Scope of Practice:  Nurse Practitioners’ Growing Pains” (2012)[1]

“We agree certified nurse practitioners can provide many core primary care services, but it is important that this not be misunderstood as suggesting that nurses are interchangeable with physicians in providing the full depth and breadth of services that primary care physicians provide.  The two professions are complementary but not equivalent.  For diagnostic evaluation of clinical presentations that are not straightforward and for the ongoing management of complex or interacting medical problems, the most appropriate clinician is the physician.” – J. F. Ralston & S. E. Weinberger, “Nurses’ Scope of Practice” (2011)[2]

Entering the debate on the “scope of practice” between nurse practitioners (NPs) and physicians is like parachuting onto a battlefield strewn with semantic landmines and decaying verbiage, while overhead the whistle of incoming word-tipped artillery fire grows louder.  For the opposing forces, the NPs and the MDs, negotiation about the scope of NPs’ provider activities has given way to incendiary propaganda and explosive metaphors.  It is all a matter of logistics, planning, grand strategy, tactical advance and retreat.

When the nursing historian Julie Fairman and her colleagues argue that “physicians’ additional training has not been shown to result in a measurable difference from that of nurse practitioners in the quality of basic primary care services,”[3]  they leave unexamined the meaning of basic.  Someone, after all, has to do the defining, and in so doing, to differentiate basic services from services that, in given circumstances, are not so basic.  Someone also has to stipulate how exactly “quality” is being assessed, qualitatively and quantitatively, in both the short- and long-term.

It is fine to make the commonsensical point that nurse practitioners should be permitted to practice “to the fullest extent of their skills and knowledge,” as recommended by the authors of the Institute of Medicine report of 2010, The Future of Nursing.[4]  But who decides what “fullest extent” actually means in relation to specific clinical contingencies and management challenges?  Is there even consensus on the meaning of NP “knowledge and competence” in contradistinction to the “knowledge and competence” of those who receive medical training?  Literally, then, what are Fairman and her colleagues talking about?

NP advocates make tactical use of the word “partnership” in framing debates about NP expansion.  And yes, certainly we need NPs and physicians to be collaborative partners in providing quality health care.  But the notion of “partnership,” as used by NPs, also subserves polemics.  Partnership, after all, does not entail parity among partners.  In law and business, for example, there are senior partners and junior partners, name partners and equity partners, voting partners and nonvoting partners.  In medicine, there are any number of  procedures (e.g., colposcopy, sigmoidoscopy, nasopharyngoscopy) that fall within the domain of adult primary care, but that many primary care physicians no longer perform, even if they are competent to do so, owing to issues of liability and lack of third party coverage.  This does not mean that primary care physicians, gynecologists, gastroenterologists, and ENTs are not “partners” in care, but rather that “partnership” does not abrogate the need for a division of labor, with the differing responsibilities, obligations, and entitlements that such  division entails.

Physician groups threatened by the legislative incursions of nonmedical providers like NPs are no better and even worse.  The Physicians Foundation is a nonprofit organization of medical groups formed to push back the nonmedical invaders, especially nurse practitioners.  Their report of November, 2012, Accept No Substitute: A Report on Scope of Practice, brims with military metaphors.  The authors, Stephen Isaacs and Paul Jellinek, write of “holding the line” on “expansionary forays” and summarize bulletins “fresh from the front lines.”  “What is the score so far?” they ask.  “Who is winning these scope of practice battles?”  And the military metaphors segue into sports metaphors, with the authors’ dour acknowledgment that physicians “are usually playing defense on scope of practice” brightened by occasional successes in eliminating nonphysician licensing.  In the latter cases, they exult, physicians “are in fact able to move the ball up the field.”[5]

What is one to make of such sophomoric posturing in the face of a serious and growing shortage of primary care physicians?  Where will we find the 51,880 additional primary care physicians that, according to recent published projections, we will need by 2025?[6]  It is easy to appreciate the exasperation of primary care NPs who face such opposition in the face of well-established facts.  To wit:   Only 20% of today’s medical students will choose a primary care specialty; NPs provide more cost-effective care than their physician counterparts; patient surveys reveal satisfaction with the care provided by NPs; and half of all physicians in office practice already work with NPs, certified nurse midwives, and/or physician assistants.  All such facts, be it noted, are ceded by the authors of The Physicians Foundation report.[7]

It is time for physicians to accept not only the reality, but also the socioethical desirability of nonphysician providers.  By the same token, it is time for nurse practitioners to accept the reasonableness of practice limits.  An expanded scope of practice is not a limitless scope of practice.  And, yes, self-evidently, the limits to which NPs are subject will not be identical to the limits imposed on physicians. There are indications for which physician consultation and supervision should be mandatory; there will be procedures that only physicians, including primary care physicians, are trained and legally authorized to perform. Establishing boundaries will always be shaped by power politics and economic self-interest, but it need not be deformed by them.  The process can be elevated by concern for public safety and prudent good sense.  By way of identifying two areas in need of further dialogue informed by complementary needs for patient access and patient safety, consider the topics of chronic disease management and prescriptive authority.

Nurse practitioner advocates tout the important role of NPs in managing chronic disease, and type 2 diabetes is typically given as a case in point.[8]  Certainly NPs can manage diabetics whose glucose levels must be monitored and insulin dosages adjusted.  There is also evidence that specialized NPs are highly effective in collaborative practice with primary care physicians, where they serve as diabetic care coordinators.[9]  What then is the problem?  It arises from the fact that management of chronic disease, especially among the elderly, is rarely a matter of managing a  stable disease entity.  In later life, diabetes, however well monitored and managed, typically leads to neuropathy, retinopathy, and/or kidney disease.

Are NPs trained to manage chronic diseases as independent providers when management ipso facto entails a plethora of intersystemic complications?  Consider another example.  Perhaps an NP-nephrologist can manage end-stage renal disease (ESRD), a chronic disease that can be stabilized for long periods with dialysis.  But what happens when such management, and the prolongation of life it entails, leads to diabetes and heart disease, as it often does?  Is such management still within the “knowledge and competence” of NPs?  As I wrote in “The Costs of  Medical Progress”:

Chronic disease rarely runs its course in glorious pathophysiological isolation.  All but inevitably, it pulls other chronic diseases into the running.  Newly emergent chronic disease is collateral damage attendant to chronic disease long-established and well-managed.  Chronicities cluster; discrete treatment technologies leach together; medication needs multiply.

Well-trained NPs no doubt bring much-needed talent to managing intercurrent disease in certain respects.  I am no expert here, but I am open to the possibility that independent management of chronic disease, particularly among the elderly, may not be commensurate with the discrete “skill set” that NPs acquire, even as this “set” is enlarged by the medley of nonmedical skills inculcated by “nursing education and its particular ideology and professional identity.”[10]  Management of chronic disease, that is, often entails complexity of a distinctly medical sort.  Scope of practice debates should be informed by the fact that diabetes, to keep to the example, is no longer a disease with a stable natural history.[11]  The same can be said of kidney disease and heart disease and many types of cancer.  So the question of what NPs can and cannot do needs to be fleshed out in a more clinically realistic manner:  We need to know whether NP-generalists are as capable as primary care physicians of managing chronic illness in the context of life span issues and specific dimensions of patient care.  Are they as capable as primary care physicians, for example, of prioritizing interventions among older patients with multiple chronic diseases?[12]

Another “fullest extent” problematic concerns prescribing privileges.  NPs and APRNs (advanced practice registered nurses) demand the same authorization to prescribe medications as physicians.  This insistence, globally formulated, masks the fact that prescriptive authority is always qualified in various ways. Perhaps physicians, NPs and APRNs, and legislatures should set the all-or-nothing rhetoric aside and wrestle with the real-world issue of “prescriptive authority of various levels” that gets codified in state law.[13]  Is it within the NP’s scope of practice, for example, to change antibiotics without physician consultation for a child who comes to the pediatrician with fever, sore throat, and pain, and whose symptoms have not abated with first-line antibiotics prescribed by the NP?[14]  To begin to get a handle on this kind of issue, one must at present read the law on NP “scope of practice” in a particular state, as NPs have in fact been enjoined to do.[15]

Here is the point: primary care NPs in all states deserve – and now have – “prescriptive authority,” but reasonable people may differ on the breadth of this authority.  Here is an issue that can be subject to empirical research and meaningful negotiation among all the stakeholders, including the public. To wit, what kinds of drugs are NPs trained to prescribe and, based on survey data, what kinds of drugs do they actually prescribe?  Several studies from the 1980s showed “that NPs prescribe a very limited number of relatively simple medications to predominantly healthy populations.”[16]  Perhaps these studies are badly dated and superseded by  recent studies attesting to the broadened range of drugs now prescribed by primary care NPs. Well and good.  Then the “prescriptive authority” granted to NPs by legislatures should be broader rather than narrower.

But, normatively speaking, should it be equivalent to the prescriptive authority of primary care physicians?  Should NPs be granted authority to prescribe controlled substances without collaborative arrangements with physicians and without limiting stipulations as to dosage and duration of use?  Here is another issue ripe for further negotiation informed by empirical research and considerations of patient safety.  I bring no special expertise to the table beyond noting that NPs, however great their knowledge and competence, do not receive the extensive training in physiology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology that physicians do. I do not find it unreasonable that NP-issued scripts should require some degree of physician involvement, as is now the case in 32 states.[17]

The power differential between organized medicine and organized nursing, including medical specialty societies and NP/ACRP societies, has made matters worse for highly trained nurse practitioners seeking to practice to the fullest extent of their knowledge and competence.  But it has also led some NP representatives to demonize medical groups that seek any drawing of lines, since the very act of drawing a line can only derive from the economic imperative to “hold the line” on NP rights.  Consider the reaction of the editor of Policy Politics Nursing Practice in 2006 to the insistence of medical groups that the difference between nurse practitioners with doctorates and physicians be clarified for the benefit of patients. “Does anyone,” he wrote, “seriously see it as part of a conspiracy to mislead patients by having APRNs refer to themselves as doctor? And are physical therapists (who are moving toward a requirement for doctoral-level education), psychologists, and pharmacists in on the conspiracy, too?”[18]

Well, no, hardly.  But the issue here, shorn of polarizing rhetoric, isn’t about willful misleading; it’s about the cultural valence of the title “doctor” and the everyday meanings people impute to it in connection with healthcare.  A patient who seeks treatment from a licensed primary care provider who is referred to and addressed as “doctor” will, absent some kind of a priori clarification, likely assume the “doctor” in question is a physician.  It is not unreasonable to suggest reasonable efforts at patient education to clarify the different roles and orientations of different kinds of providers.  And what prevents NP groups from adopting their own strategy of patient education?  What prevents them from developing and publicizing endorsements of the “doctor of nursing practice” degree that play to the latter’s  “doctoring” strengths in contradistinction to those of physicians?

If there is a conspiracy out there, it is one perpetrated on the public by both physicians and NPs.  It is a conspiracy of partial explanations.  It is the conspiracy among physicians who refuse to cede that nurse practitioners have arrived, that they are licensed clinical providers who are perfectly capable of providing a great deal of what has traditionally been the province of medicine, especially primary care medicine.  But it is also the conspiracy among NP advocates whose rhetoric masks important distinctions, viz., that “fullest extent” of NP/APRN practice is not coextensive with the typically full extent of care that primary care physicians are trained to provide.  This follows from various considerations, not least of which is that family physicians train a total of 21,000 hours whereas NPs train between 3,500 and 6,000 hours.[19]  There, I’ve done it again.  I’ve made a a series of claims that strike me as reasonable and will win me no friends in either warring camp.


[1] J. A. Berg & M. E. Roberts, “Recognition, regulation, scope of practice:  nurse practitioners’ growing pains,” J. Amer. Acad. Nurse Pract., 24:121-123, 2012, at 121.

[2] J. F. Ralston & S. E. Weinberger, “Nurses’ scope of practice,” Correspondence, New Engl. J. Med., 364:281.

[3] J. A. Fairman, et al., “Broadening the scope of nursing practice,” New Engl. J. Med., 364:193-96, at 193.

[4] As quoted in J. A. Fairman & S. M. Okoye, “Nursing for the future, from the past: two reports on nursing from the Institute of Medicine,” J. Nurs. Ed., 50:305-311, 2011, at 309.

[5] S. Isaacs & P. Jellinek, Accept No Substitute:  A Report on Scope of Practice. White Paper for The Physicians Foundation, November, 2012 (, pp. 1, 2, 3, 6.

[6] S. M. Petterson, et al., “Projecting US primary care physician workforce needs:  2010-2025,” Ann. Fam. Med., 10:503-509, 2012.

[7] Issacs & Jellinek, Accept No Substitute, pp. 8-13.

[8] G. C. Richardson, et al., “Nurse practitioner management of type 2 diabetes,” Permanente Journal, 18:e134-140, 2014;  M. J. Goolsby, “2006 American Academy of Nurse Practitioners diabetes management survey,” J. Amer. Acad. Nurse Pract., 19:496-98, 2007; Fairman, et al.,  “Broadening the scope of nursing practice,” p. 193.

[9] Richardson, “Nurse practitioner management of type 2 diabetes,” op cit.; K. G. Shojania, et al., “Effects of quality improvement strategies for type 2 diabetes on glycemic control:  a meta-regression analysis,” JAMA, 296:427-40, 2006; S. Ingersoll, et al., Nurse care coordination for diabetes:  a literature review and synthesis,” J. Nurs. Care Qual., 20:208-14, 2005.

[10] On the notion of clinical competence as acquisition of a “skill set,” see, e.g., J. Fairman, “Delegated by default or negotiated by need?:  physicians, nurse practitioners, and the process of clinical thinking,” in E. D. Baer, et al., Enduring Issues in American Nursing (NY: Springer Pub., 2002),  pp. 311-12 and J. Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic: Nurse Practitioners and the Evolution of Modern Health Care (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2008), pp. 187, 190.

[11] Chris Feudtner terms it a “cyclical transmuted disease” in Bittersweet: Diabetes, Insulin, and the Transformation of Illness (Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 2003), p. 36.

[12] For exemplary instances of how clinical judgment – and not a clinical “skill set” – enters into the prioritizing of treatment interventions among concurrent chronic diseases, see K. C. Stange, et al., “The value of a family physician,” J. Fam. Pract., 46:363-69, 1998; K. C. Stange, “The generalist approach,” Ann. Fam. Med., 7:198-203, 2009, and E. J. Cassell, Doctoring: The Nature of Primary Care Medicine (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[13] Of course, the issue of  levels of prescriptive authority pertains not only to physicians and NPs, but also to physician assistants, dentists, optometrists, osteopaths, and podiatrists. For the concrete manner in which the state of Florida spells out prescriptive levels for each of these professions, see

[14] M. Crane, “Malpractice risks with NPs and PAs in your practice,” Medscape, Jan 3, 2013 (

[15] E.g., C. Buppert, “Scope of practice,” J. Nurse Pract., 1:11-13, 2005.

[16] C. D. DeAngelis, “Nurse practitioner redux,” JAMA, 271:868-71, 1994.  The studies  DeAngelis cites are:  P. Repicky, et al., “Professional activities of nurse practitioners in adult ambulatory care settings,” Nurse Pract., 4:27-40, 1980; D. Munroe, et al., “Prescribing patterns of nurse practitioners,” Am. J. Nurs., 82:1538-40, 1982; J. Resenaur, “Prescribing behavior of primary care nurse practitioners,” Am. J. Public Health., 74:10-13, 1984.

[17] “Nurse Practitioner Prescribing Authority and Physician Supervision Requirements for Diagnosis and Treatment” (

[18] D. M. Keepnews, “Scope of practice redux?,” Policy, Politics & Nurs. Prac., 7:84-86, 2006, at 84.

[19] D. Marbury, “Scope of practice debate,” Med. Econ., September 10, 2013, 26-30, at 27 (

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

What Do Nurse Practitioners Practice?

What should the nurse practitioner’s “scope of practice” be  and how autonomously should she or he be allowed to practice within that scope?  A half century after the first advanced training programs brought nurses into the ranks of clinical providers, these two questions continue to bedevil nursing, medicine, insurance companies, and state legislatures.  The crucial role of nurse practitioners in modern health care delivery, their ability to provide primary care, and the satisfaction of patients who receive this care – these facts are well-established and, for me at least, beyond dispute.

But questions of scope of practice and practice prerogatives (including prescribing privileges) remain contentious, and different state legislatures have codified different answers.   I have no desire to enter debates that will likely continue at medical, nursing, and legislative levels for some time to come.  But let me offer one historian’s perspective on a few aspects of these knotty issues.

The expansion of nursing’s role in the direction of specialized clinical expertise occurred in an amazingly brief stretch of time.  In 1955, The American Nurses Association (ANA) approved a legal definition of nursing practice that prohibited “acts of diagnosis and prescription of therapeutic or corrective measures,” and it was only seven years later, in 1962, that it held its first clinical sessions at its annual convention.[1]  Even then, until 1968, the ANA’s Code for Professional Nurses framed the nurse’s professional responsibilities in terms of the nurse’s relationship to physicians.[2]  Yet, by the mid-60s, spearheaded by reforms in nursing education then underway, the term “nurse practitioner” came into use.  It conveyed a nurse with “specialized expertise,” often in hospital settings, that grew out of additional training beyond the three years of hospital-based training that led to state licensure as a Registered Nurse.

“Specialized expertise” is an evocative but imprecise term.  In nursing, it initially conveyed expertise in one or another aspect of hospital-based care.  In the early 1900s, nurses acquired expertise as x-ray technicians and microscopists, and then again in the 1930s, they “specialized” in monitoring polio patients in their iron lungs.  During World War II, nurses both on the front lines and in stateside hospitals began to perform venipunctures to administer fluids intravenously; after the war, they continued to do so, and some  became specialized IV  therapists, performing and monitoring  IVs all along their units.

But in postwar America it was especially the new technologies brought to bear in treating acutely ill patients that elicited nurse specialization.  Self-evidently, we needed critical care nurses, obstetrical nurses, and dialysis nurses able to exercise independent judgment and initiate (or discontinue) treatments in exigent circumstances, in what the historian Margaret Sandelowski terms “emergent life-threatening conditions.”  By the 1960s, as Sandelowski observes, the new “machinery of care” had fostered a more collegial and collaborative relationship between physicians and nurses.[3]  But this machinery  – vital function monitors, cardiac monitors, electronic fetal monitors, and the like – was integral to medical care in the hospital.  These monitors were not invented by nursing scientists as extensions of nursing care; they were instruments of improved hospital care whose design, manufacture, and intended use fell within the domain of physicians and the medical model.

The nomenclatural challenge proved even greater when advanced nursing practice left the hospital setting and became office-based, especially in the realm of primary care.  Historians of nursing such as Julie Fairman tend to collapse the distinction between hospital-based specialty nursing and independent “nursing practice” in a global narrative of nursing’s coming-of-age in the four decades following the end of World War II.  The storyline of professional self-becoming involves new forms of collegial collaboration between individual nurses and physicians, which, over time, empowered the nursing profession to liberate itself from the bondage of organized medicine, with its long-held belief in the subordinate role of nurses as physician extenders.  What tends to be glossed over is the phenomenology of “expertise” in relation to different professional activities.  Expertise in the implementation of technologically driven, hospital-based monitoring – with the diagnostic and treatment prerogatives associated with it – is not the same as the expertise that inheres in being a “practitioner” of medicine.

Or is it the expertise that inheres in being a “practitioner” of nursing?  In her illuminating history of the nurse practitioner movement in America, Fairman delineates the inter-professional tensions congealed in this question.  Even  Loretta Ford and Henry Silver, she points out, who collaboratively developed the first (pediatric) nurse practitioner training program at the University of Colorado in the mid-1960s, used different, politically laden terminology to describe exactly what kind of nonmedical practitioner they were training.  For the pediatrician Silver, the new provider would be a “nurse associate”; for the nurse educator Ford, she or he would be a “nurse practitioner.”[4]

And the linguistic-cum-political tension was played out in different pairs of descriptors.  Nurse practitioners saw themselves as “taking on” diagnostic and treatment activities traditionally reserved for physicians, whereas physicians saw themselves as “delegating” certain medical tasks to nurses.[5]  The need to define the nurse specialist’s prerogative to diagnose and treat illness as  something other than “medical”  was at the heart of the American Nurses Association’s need to distance itself from another nonmedically trained practitioner who emerged at this same moment in  American history:  the Physician Assistant.  PAs were precisely what newly empowered clinical care nurses, at least in the eyes of their professional organization, did not want to be: a Physician Assistant rather than an autonomous Nurse Practitioner.[6]

In the realm of independent practice, this claim is highly problematic, since diagnosis and treatment of illness is not nursing “practice” in any historically meaningful sense of the term; rather, diagnosis and treatment have always fallen to the physician, as the word “physician” has been understood since the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Anglo-Normans gathered the Latin “physicus” and the French “physic” into the English “physic,” from which the word  “physician” as a medical practitioner came in to use later in the century.  It is easy to see how nursing practice can envelop sophisticated technological skills that are teachable and learnable.  But the art of diagnosis and treatment – and the qualities of learned judgment[7] that fall to this task – have always been the province of medicine.

The historical claim enfolds an epistemic claim, a claim about the nature of different kinds of knowledge.  Nursing knowledge, as codified in Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It is Not (1859) and the British and American training programs that adopted her model in the 1870s and thereafter, has never been coextensive with medical knowledge.  For  Nightingale and her cohort of nursing educators, it remained a “gendered” (read: womanly) knowledge of comfort care; such care drew on sanitary science and scientifically informed  bedside observation, both infused with a maternalistic sensibility.[8]  Whether or not the knowledge base that subtends such patient-centered caring is something other than medical knowledge (as Nightingale believed) or a neglected subset of medical knowledge, is beside the point. And the point is this:  The kind of “knowledge and skills”[9] that enter into independent clinical practice – “knowledge and skills” that, to be sure, nurse practitioners and other nonmedical providers can acquire to some extent  – are by their nature medical.  This is why the struggle of nurse practitioners to obtain state licensure that permits them to “practice” without medical supervision has been halting and may never succeed entirely.

It is not simply a matter of power in the sense of Foucault, of organized medicine’s ability to withhold, control, and/or regulate entry into the world of practice.  It is because the science of clinical evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment that emerged in postbellum America was vested in the medical profession, not in the nascent nursing profession.  In the final three decades of the nineteenth century, we behold the paradigm shift in medicine that historians endlessly write about:  Medicine became scientific medicine, and this shift, with its associated educational and organizational changes, coincided with the emergence of a “profession” in the modern sense of the term.  The physician, not his (then) helpmate nurse, was part of the profession vested with the scientific understanding of illness and the cultural authorization to act on this understanding by diagnosing and treating it.[10]

The foregoing helps explain why, in retrospect, the ANA’s insistence that pediatric nurse practitioners retain the prerogative to delineate their own scope of practice was foredoomed.  ANA leaders sought to contest a notion of “practice” that, by the early 1970s, was incontestable.  And the pediatric nurse practitioners knew as much.  Like their nurse anesthetist forebears, who formed the National Association of Nurse Anesthetists in 1932,[11] they walked away from the ANA and formed their own professional association, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates and Practitioners (NAPNAP) in 1973.  And the NAPNAP, without further ado, accepted affiliation with the American Academy of Pediatrics, realizing that the ANA’s insistence on complete autonomy for nursing was self-defeating.  The pediatric nurses, if not the ANA leaders, realized that such insistence militated against the idea of team practice, of a pediatrician, pediatric nurse practitioner, and nurse working together, and it contravened the reality that, in all such cases, the pediatrician would be the leader of the team.[12]

The dilemma for nurse practitioners is that they have spent  over a half century trying to define themselves by what they are not.  They are not physicians.  They are not physician assistants or associates.  They are not general nurses who lack advanced postgraduate training and specialty licensure.  So what exactly are they?

In the late 1950s and 1960s, nurse educators like Esther Brown and Hildegard Peplau sought to fill in the lacuna by articulating a new basis for nurse practitioner expertise.  In so doing, they adopted the same orientation as the founders of the “family practice” specialty movement during the same time.  That is, they sought to equate the nurse practitioner’s “expert clinical practice”  with a psychosocial sensibility and an ability to provide holistic psychotherapeutic care.  Social science course work and psychodynamic training, they hoped, would move the nursing practitioner away from medicine and toward this new kind of nursing expertise.

That Brown and Peplau spearheaded this effort in nurse education is hardly surprising, given their respective backgrounds.  Brown, a social anthropologist on the staff of the Russell Sage Foundation, authored Nursing for the Future (1948), a Foundation report that advocated university-based nurse training schools in the service of a vague psychosocial vision of nursing care.  The nurse of the future, she wrote, would “complement the patient by supplying what he needs in knowledge, will, or strength to perform his daily activities and also to carry out the treatment prescribed for him by the physician.”  Peplau, the founder of psychiatric nursing, followed an M.A. at Columbia’s Teachers College, where she completed the first course in advanced psychiatric nursing, with psychoanalytic training at New York’s William Alanson White Institute.[13]  She believed that psychiatric nurses should function as psychotherapists, and, implicitly, that all nurses should bring a broad psychosocial, really a psychotherapeutic, orientation to their work.  Were Brown, Peplau, and their associates successful in reforming nursing training in a manner that subserved a new kind of nursing identity?   No, certainly not in the manner they envisioned.  And further, at the time their educational reforms were introduced in the nursing schools of large public universities, there were serious problems: Graduates overfed with the new social science curriculum were simply unprepared to assume the responsibilities of nursing practice.[14]


 My father, William Stepansky, whose remarkable postwar career in family medicine has been woven into many of these essays, was a pharmacist before he was a physician.  He entered Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1940, but his education was interrupted by induction into the army in March, 1943, several months before he completed his junior year.  He had not begun pharmacy college with the intention of attending medical school – this seemed an utterly far-fetched dream for the son of poor Russian émigrés who fled the Pogroms in 1921 and struggled to raise a family in the Jewish enclave of South Philadelphia.  His own mother thought him foolish for entering college and crazy (meshuga) when he mentioned his interest in medicine.  In 1946, after two years of service as a surgical technician on the battlefields of France, Belgium and Germany and an additional six months as a laboratory technician in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, he returned to Philadelphia, where he completed his pharmacy training in 1947.  Only then, with the G.I. Bill in place, did he allow himself to envision a career in medicine, and following an inventive series of initiatives, he gained admittance to Jefferson Medical College, where he joined the freshman class in the fall of 1948.[15]

My father not only retained an active pharmacy license throughout his career, but actually “practiced” pharmacy out of his Trappe office.  He maintained an impressive inventory of basic and not-so-basic drugs, and he concocted, among other things, the marvelous “red medicine” of which I have written.  He became a staff research clinician for McNeil Labs and later participated in clinical drug trials with the Psychopharmacology Research Unit of the University of Pennsylvania.  Pharmacy training certainly proved helpful to him and his rural patients, but it was not at the core of his professional identity.  He was not a “pharmacist practitioner” or an “advanced practice pharmacist.”  He was a physician, a general practitioner of medicine.

Perhaps it is time for the nurse practitioner profession to dispense with the “nurse” appellation altogether.  These men and women are not professional nurses as the notion of nurse professionalism took shape over 150 years, even though they come to  medical “practice” through nursing training and the patient-centered values it instills.  But additional clinical training of several years duration beyond the R.N. or B.S.N. level, I suggest, takes them out of the realm of nursing practice altogether.   So, with a nod to perduring intra- and inter-professional politics, let’s cast aside the terms “medical,” “physician,” “nurse,” and “nursing” altogether, and come up with something more accurate.  Advanced practice nurses should henceforth be designated “licensed clinical providers” or “licensed clinical practitioners,” with the appropriate specialty designation appended to their licenses, e.g., “licensed clinical provider – primary care” or “licensed clinical provider – nephrology” or “licensed clinical provider – oncology.”  There, I’ve said it.  These designations are accurate and neutral and therefore certain to please no one.


[1] J. Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic:  Nurse Practitioners and the Evolution of Modern Health Care (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 2008), pp. 119-21.

[2] L. Freitas, “Historical roots and future perspectives related to nursing ethics,” J. Prof. Nurs., 197-205, 1990, at 202.

[3]  M. Sandelowski, Devices and Desires:  Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 127-28.

[4] Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic, p. 91.

[5] J. Fairman, “Delegated by default or negotiated by need?:  physicians, nurse practitioners, and the process of clinical thinking,” in E. D. Baer, et al., Enduring Issues in American Nursing (NY:  Springer Pub., 2002), pp. 309-333, at p. 323.

[6] Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic, pp. 95ff.

[7] N.B. I do not understand “clinical judgment,” with its reliance on mentoring and tacit knowing, in the same way Fairman understands “clinical thinking,” viz., as a process or skill set. See Fairman, “Delegated by default,” pp. 311-12 and Making Room in the Clinic, p. 187.

[8] For a wonderful popular exposition of  Nightingale’s vision of the nurse transposed to the Bellevue Hospital Training School in the early 1880s,  see F. H. North, “A new profession for women,” The Century, 25:30-37, 1882.

[9] Fairman, “Delegated by default,” p. 323.

[10] These brief remarks allude to, without doing justice to, the brilliant analysis of Thomas Haskell on the emergence of modern professions in postbellum America.  See T. L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science:  The American Social Science Association the the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2000 [1977]), pp. 68-74, 91-121, and passim.

[11] K. Koch, “Agatha Hodgins, Lakeside Alumnae Association, and the founding of the AANA,” AANA Journal, 73:259-62, 2005.

[12] Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic, pp. 175-80.

[13] On Peplau’s graduate training at Teacher’s College and the William Alanson White Institute, see B. J. Callaway, Hildegard Peplau: Psychiatric Nurse of the Century (NY:  Springer Pub., 2002), pp. 167-91.

[14] Dominique Tobbell documents the perceived deficiencies of 1960s graduates of the UCLA and University of Minnesota nursing schools, where the new curriculum was implemented,  in “’Coming to grips with the nursing question’:  the politics of nursing education reform in 1960s America,”  Nurs. Hist. Rev., 22:37-60, 2014.

[15] This paragraph is culled from my memoir of my father’s life and career, P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor:  Remembering My Father’s Medicine (Montclair, NJ:  Keynote, 2011).

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Your Tool Touches Me

It is little known that René Laënnec, the Parisian physician who invented the stethoscope at the Necker Hospital in 1816, found it distasteful to place his ear to the patient’s chest.  The distastefulness of “direct auscultation” was compounded by its impracticality in the hospital where, he observed, “it was scarcely to be suggested for most women patients, in some of whom the size of the breasts also posed a physical obstacle.”[1]  The stethoscope, which permitted “mediate auscultation,” not only amplified heart and lung sounds in diagnostically transformative ways; it enabled Laënnec to avoid repugnant  ear to chest contact.

Many women patients of Laënnec’s time and place did not see it that way.  Accustomed to the warmly human pressure of ear on chest, they were uncomfortable when an elongated wooden cylinder was interposed between the two.  By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, of course, the situation was inverted:  The stethoscope, in its modern binaural guise, had become so integral to physical examination that patients  hardly viewed it as a tool at all.  It had become emblematic of hands-on doctoring and, as such, a sensory extender of the doctor.  Even now, the stethoscope virtually stands in for the doctor, especially the generalist or the cardiologist, so that a retiring physician will announce that he is, or will be characterized by others as, hanging up his stethoscope.[2]

It’s easy to argue for the “oneness” of the physician and his or her instruments when it’s a matter of simple tools that amplify sensory endowment  (stethoscopes), provide a hands-on bodily “reading” (of temperature or blood pressure), or elicit a tendon reflex (e.g., the reflex hammer).  And the argument can be extended without much difficulty to the more invasive, high-tech “scopes” used by medical specialists to see what is invisible to the naked eye.  Instruments become so wedded to one or another specialty that it is hard to think of our providers without them.  What is an ophthalmologist without her ophthalmoscope?  An ENT without his nasal speculum?  A gynecologist without her vaginal speculum?  An internist without his blood pressure meter?  Such hand-held devices are diagnostic enablers, and as such they are, or at least ought to be, our friends.

In “Caring Technology” I  suggested that even large-scale technology administered by technicians, and therefore outside the physician’s literal grasp, can be linked in meaningful ways to the physician’s person.  A caring explanation of the need for this or that study, informed by a relational bond, can humanize even the most forbidding high-tech machinery.  To be sure, medical machinery, whatever the discomfort and/or bodily bombardment it entails, is often discomfiting.  But it need be alienating only when we come to it in an alienated state, when it is not an instrument of physicianly engagement but a dehumanized object – a piece of technology.

Critical care nurses, whose work is both technology-laden and technology-driven, have had much to say on the relationship of technology to nursing identity and nursing care.  This literature includes provocative contributions that look at where nurses stand in a hospital hierarchy that comprises staff physicians, residents, students, administrators, patients, and patients’ families.

For some CCU nurses, the use of technology and the acquisition of technological competence segue into issues of power and autonomy and they, in turn, are linked to issues of gender, medical domination, and “ownership” of the technology.[3]  A less feminist sensibility informs interview research that yields unsurprising empirical findings, viz.,  that comfort with technology and the ability to incorporate it into a caring, “touching” disposition hinge on the technological mastery associated with nursing experience.  Student and novice nurses, for example, find the machinery of the CCU anxiety-inducing, even overwhelming.  They resent the casual manner in which physicians relegate to them complex technological tasks, such as weaning patients from respirators, without appreciating the long list of  nursing duties to which such tasks are appended.[4]  Withal, beginners approach the use of technology in task-specific ways and have great difficulty “caring with technology.”[5]   Theirs is not a caring technology but a technology that causes stress and jeopardizes fragile professional identities.

Experienced CCU nurses, on the other hand, achieve a technological competence that lets them pull the machinery to them; they use it as a window of opportunity for being with their patients.[6]   Following Christine Little, we can give the transformation from novice to expert a phenomenological gloss and say that as technological inexperience gives way to technological mastery, technological skills become “ready-to-hand” (Heidegger) and “a natural extension of practice.”[7]

Well and good.  We want critical care nurses comfortable with the machinery of critical care – with cardiac and vital signs monitors, respirators, catheters, and infusion pumps – so that implementing technological interventions and monitoring the monitors do not blot out the nurse’s “presence”  in the patient’s care.   But all this is from the perspective of the nurse and her role in the hospital.  What, one wonders, does the patient make of all this technology?

Humanizing technology means identifying with it in ways that are not only responsive to the patient’s fears but also conducive to a shared appreciation of its role in treatment.  It is easier for patients to feel humanly touched by technology, that is, if their doctors and nurses appropriate it and represent it as an extender of care.  Perhaps some doctors and nurses do so as a matter of course, but one searches the literature in vain for examples of nurse-patient or doctor-patient interactions that humanize technology through dialogue.  And such dialogue, however perfunctory in nature, may greatly matter.

Consider the seriously ill patient whose nurse interacts with him without consideration of the technology-saturated environment in which care is given.  Now consider the seriously ill patient whose nurse incorporates the machinery into his or her caregiving identity, as in “This monitor [or this line or this pump] is a terrific thing for you and for me.  It lets me take better care of you.”  Such reassurance, which can be elaborated in any number of patient-centered ways, is not trivial; it may turn an anxious patient around, psychologically speaking.  And it is all the more important when, owing to the gravity of the patient’s condition, the nurse must spend more time assessing data and tending to machinery than caring for the patient.  Here especially the patient needs to be reminded that the nurse’s responsibility for machinery expands his or her role as the patient’s guardian.[8]

The touch of the physician’s sensory extenders, if literally uncomfortable, may still be comforting.  For it is the physician’s own ears that hear us through the stethoscope and whose own eyes gaze on us through the ophthalmoscope, the laryngoscope, the esophagoscope, the colposcope.  It is easier to appreciate tools as beneficent extenders of care in the safe confines of one’s own doctor’s office, where instrumental touching is fortified by the relational bond that grows out of continuing care.  In the hospital, absent such relational grounding, there is  more room for dissonance and hence more need for shared values and empathy.  A nurse who lets the cardiac monitor pull her away from patient care will not do well with a frightened patient who needs personal caring.  A parturient who welcomes the technology of the labor room will connect better with a labor nurse who values the electronic fetal monitor (and the reassuring visualization it provides the soon-to-be mother) than a nurse who is unhappy with its employment in low-risk births and prefers a return to intermittent auscultation.

In the best of circumstances, tools elicit an intersubjective convergence grounded in an expectation of objectively superior care.  It helps to keep the “objective care” part in mind, to remember that technology was not devised to frighten us, encumber us, or cause us pain,  but to help doctors and nurses evaluate us, keep us stable and comfortable, and enable treatments that will make us better, or at least leave us better off than our technology-free forebears.

My retinologist reclines the examination chair all the way back and begins prepping my left eye for its second intravitreal  injection of Eylea, one of the newest drugs used to treat macular disease.  I am grateful for all the technology that has brought me to this point:  the retinal camera, the slit lamp, the optical coherence tomography machine.  I am especially grateful for the development of fluorescein angiography, which allows my doctor to pinpoint with great precision the lesion in need of treatment.  And of course I am grateful to my retinologist, who brings all this technology to bear with a human touch, calmly reassuring me through every step of evaluation and treatment.

I experienced almost immediate improvement after the first such injection a month earlier and am eager to proceed with the treatment.  So I am relatively relaxed as he douses my eye with antiseptic and anesthetic washes in preparation for the needle.  Then, at the point of injection, he asks me to look up at the face of his assistant, a young woman with a lovely smile.  “My pleasure,” I quip, slipping into gendered mode.  “I love to look at pretty faces.”   I am barely aware of the momentary pressure of the needle that punctures my eyeball and releases this wonderfully effective new drug into the back of my eye.  It is not the needle that administers treatment but my trusted and caring physician.  “Great technique,” I remark.  “I barely felt it.”  To which his young assistant, still standing above me, smiles and adds,  “I think I had something to do with it.”  And indeed she had.

[1] Quoted in J. Duffin, To See with a Better Eye: A Life of R. T. H. Laennec (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 122.

[2] Here are a few recent examples:  O. Samuel, “On hanging up my stethoscope,” BMJ, 312:1426, 1996; “Dr. Van Ausdal hangs up his stethoscope,”, September 26, 2013 (;  “At 90, Gardena doctor is hanging up his stethoscope,” The Daily Breeze, October, 29, 2013 (;  “Well-known doctor hangs up his stethoscope,” Bay Post, February 8, 2014 (

[3] See, for example, A. Barnard, “A critical review of the belief that technology is a neutral object and nurses are its master,” J. Advanced Nurs., 26:126-131, 1997; J. Fairman & P. D’Antonio, “Virtual power: gendering the nurse-technology relationship,” Nurs. Inq., 6:178-186, 1999; & B. J. Hoerst & J. Fairman, “Social and professional influences of the technology of electronic fetal monitoring on obstetrical nursing,” Western J. Nurs. Res., 22:475-491, 2000, at pp. 481-82.

[4] C. Crocker & S. Timmons, “The role of technology in critical care nursing,” J. Advanced Nurs., 65:52-61, 2008.

[5] M. McGrath, “The challenges of caring in a technological environment:  critical care nurses’ experiences,” J. Clin. Nurs., 17:1096-1104, 2008.

[6] A. Bernardo, “Technology and true presence in nursing,” Holistic Nurs. Prac., 12:40-49, 1998;  R. C. Locsin,  Technological Competency As Caring in Nursing: A Model For Practice (Indianapolis: Centre Nursing Press, 2005);  McGrath, “The challenges of caring,” op. cit.

[7] C. V. Little, “Technological competence as a fundamental structure of learning in critical care nursing: a phenomenological study,” J. Clin. Nurs., 9:391-399, 2000, at pp. 398, 396.

[8] See E. A. McConnell, “The impact of machines on the work of critical care nurses,” Crit. Care Nurs. Q., 12:45-52, 1990, at p. 51; D. Pelletier , et al., “The impact of the technological care environment on the nursing role, Int. J. Tech. Assess. Health Care, 12:35     8-366, 1996.C

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

You Touch Me

Etymologically, the word “touch” (from the old French touchier) is a semantic cornucopia.  In English, of course, common usage embraces dual meanings. We make tactile contact, and we receive emotional contact.  The latter meaning is usually passively rendered, in the manner of receiving a gift:  we are the beneficiary of someone else’s emotional offering; we are “touched” by a person’s words, gestures, or deeds.  The duality extends to the realm of healthcare:  as patients, we are touched physically by our physicians (or other providers) but, if we are fortunate, we are also touched emotionally by their kindness, concern, empathy, even love.  Here the two kinds of touching are complementary.  We are examined (and often experience a measure of  contact comfort through the touch)  and then comforted by the physician’s sympathetic words; we are touched by the human contact that follows from physical touch.

For nurses, caregiving as touching and being touched has been central to professional identity.  The foundations of nursing as a modern “profession” were laid down on the battlefields of Crimea and the American South during the mid-nineteenth century.  Crimean and Civil War nurses could not “treat” their patients, but they “touched” them literally and figuratively and, in so doing, individualized their suffering.  Their nursing touch was amplified by the caring impulse of mothers:  they listened to soldiers’ stories, sought to keep them warm, and especially sought to nourish them, struggling to pry their food parcels away from corrupt medical officers.  In the process, they formulated a professional ethos that, in privileging patient care over hospital protocol, was anathema to the professionalism associated with male medical authority.[1]

This alternative, comfort-based vision of professionalism is one reason, among others, that nursing literature is more nuanced than medical literature in exploring the phenomenology and dynamic meanings of touch. It has fallen to nursing researchers to isolate and appraise the tactile components of touch (such as duration, location, intensity, and sensation) and also to differentiate between comforting touch and the touch associated with procedures, i.e., procedural touch.[2]  Buttressing the  phenomenological viewpoint of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty with recent neurophysiologic research, Catherine Green has recently argued that nurse-patient interaction, with its “heavily tactile component” promotes an experiential oneness:  it “plunges the nurse into the patient situation in a direct and immediate way.”  To touch, she reminds us, is simultaneously to be touched, so that the nurse’s soothing touch not only promotes deep empathy of the patient’s plight but actually “constitutes” the nurse herself (or himself) in her (or his) very personhood.[3]  Other nurse researchers question the intersubjective convergence presumed by Green’s rendering.  A survey of hospitalized patients, for example, documents that some patients are ambivalent toward the nurse’s touch, since for them it signifies not only care but also control.[4]

After World War II, the rise of sophisticated monitoring equipment in hospitals pulled American nursing away from hands-on, one-on-one bedside nursing.  By the 1960s, hospital nurses, no less than physicians, were “proceduralists” who relied on cardiac and vital function monitors, electronic fetal monitors, and the like for “data” on the patients they “nursed.”  They monitored the monitors and, for educators critical of this turn of events, especially psychiatric nurses, had become little more than monitors themselves.

As the historian Margarete Sandelowski has elaborated, this transformation of hospital nursing had both an upside and a downside.  It elevated the status of nurses by aligning them with postwar scientific medicine in all its burgeoning technological power.  Nurses, the skilled human monitors of the machines, were key players on whom hospitalized patients and their physicians increasingly relied.  In the hospital setting, they became “middle managers,”[5] with command authority of their wards. Those nurses with specialized skills – especially those who worked in the newly established intensive care units (ICUs) – were at the top of the nursing pecking order.  They were the most medical of the nurses, trained to diagnose and treat life-threating conditions as they arose.  As such, they achieved a new collegial status with physicians, the limits of which were all too clear.  Yes, physicians relied on nurses (and often learned from them) in the use of the new machines, but they simultaneously demeaned the “practical knowledge” that nurses acquired in the service of advanced technology – as if educating and reassuring patients about the purpose of the machines; maintaining them (and recommending improvements to manufacturers); and utilizing them without medical supervision was something any minimally intelligent person could do.

A special predicament of nursing concerns the impact of monitoring and proceduralism on a profession whose historical raison d’être was hands-on caring, first on the battlefields and then at the bedside.  Self-evidently, nurses with advanced procedural skills had to relinquish that most traditional of nursing functions: the laying on of hands.  Consider hospital-based nurses who worked full-time as x-ray technicians and microscopists in the early 1900s; who, beginning in the 1930s, monitored  polio patients in their iron lungs; who, in the decades following World War II, performed venipuncture as full-time IV therapists; and who, beginning in the 1960s, diagnosed and treated life-threatening conditions in the machine-driven ICUs.  Obstetrical nurses who, beginning in the late 1960s, relied on electronic fetal monitors to gauge the progress of labor and who, on detecting “nonreassuring” fetal heart rate patterns, initiated oxygen therapy or terminated oxytocin infusions – these “modern” OB nurses were worlds removed from their pre-1940s forebears, who monitored labor with their hands and eyes in the patient’s own home.  Nursing educators grew concerned that, with the growing reliance on electronic metering, nurses were “literally and figuratively ‘losing touch’ with laboring women.”[6]

Nor did the dilemma for nurses end with the pull of machine-age monitoring away from what nursing educators long construed as “true nursing.”  It pertained equally to the compensatory efforts to restore the personal touch to nursing in the 1970s and 80s.  This is because “true nursing,” as understood by Florence Nightingale and several generations of twentieth-century nursing educators, fell back on gendered touching; to nurse truly and well was to deploy the feminine touch of caring women.  If “losing touch” through technology was the price paid for elevated status in the hospital, then restoring touch brought with it the re-gendering (and hence devaluing) of the nurse’s charge:  she was, when all was said and done, the womanly helpmate of physicians, those masculine (or masculinized) gatekeepers of scientific medicine in all its curative glory.[7]  And yet, in the matter of touching and being touched, gender takes us only so far.  What then of male nurses, who insist on the synergy of masculinity, caring, and touch?[8]  Is their touch ipso facto deficient in some essential ingredient of true nursing?

As soon as we enter the realm of soothing touch, with its attendant psychological meanings, we encounter a number of binaries.  Each pole of a binary is a construct, an example of what the sociologist Max Weber termed an “ideal type.”  The question-promoting, if not questionable, nature of these constructs only increases their heuristic value.  They give us something to think about.  So we have “feminine” and “masculine” touch, as noted above.  But we also have the nurse’s touch and, at the other pole, the physician’s touch.  In the gendered world of many feminist writers, this binary replicates the gender divide, despite the historical and contemporary reality of women physicians and male nurses.

But the binary extends  to women physicians themselves.  In their efforts to gain entry to the world of male American medicine,  female medical pioneers adopted two radically different strategies.  At one pole, we have the touch-comfort-sympathy approach of Elizabeth Blackwell, which assigned women their own  feminized domain of practice (child care, nonsurgical obstetrics and gynecology, womanly counseling on matters of sanitation, hygiene, and prevention).  At the opposite pole we have the research-oriented, scientific approach of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Marie Zakrezewska, which held that  women physicians must be physicians in any and all respects.  Only with state-of-the-art training in the medical science (e.g., bacteriology) and treatments (e.g., ovariotomy) of the day, they held, would women docs achieve what they deserved:  full parity with  medical men.  The binary of female physicians as extenders of women’s “natural sphere” versus female physicians as physicians pure and simple runs through the second half of the nineteenth century.[9]

Within medicine, we can perhaps speak of the generalist touch (analogous to the generalist gaze[10]) that can be juxtaposed with the specialist touch.  Medical technology, especially tools that amplify the physician’s senses –  invite another binary.  There is the pole of direct touch and the pole of touch mediated by instrumentation.  This binary spans the divide between “direct auscultation,” with the physician’s ear on the patient’s chest, and “mediate auscultation,” with the stethoscope linking (and, for some nineteenth-century patients, coming between) the physician’s ear and the patient’s chest).

Broader than any of the foregoing is the binary that pushes beyond the framework of comfort care per se.  Consider it a meta-binary.  At one pole is therapeutic touch (TT), whose premise of a preternatural human energy field subject to disturbance and hands-on (or hands-near) remediation is nothing if not a recrudescence of Anton Mesmer’s “vital magnetism” of the late 18th century, with the TT therapist (usually a nurse) taking the role of Mesmer’s magnétiseur.[11]  At the opposite pole is transgressive touch.  This is the pole of boundary violations typically, though not invariably, associated with touch-free specialties such as psychiatry and psychoanalysis.[12]  Transgressive touch signifies inappropriately intimate, usually sexualized, touch that violates the boundaries of professional caring and results in the patient’s dis-comfort and dis-ease, sometimes to the point of leaving the patient traumatized, i.e., “touched in the head.”  It also signifies the psychological impairment of the therapist, who, in another etymologically just sense of the term, may be “touched,” given his or her gross inability to maintain a professional treatment relationship.

These binaries invite further scrutiny, less on account of the extremes than of the shades of grayness that span each  continuum.  Exploration of touch is a messy business, a hands-on business, a psycho-physical business.  It may yield important insights but perhaps only fitfully, in the manner of – to invoke a meaning that arose in the early nineteenth century – touch and go.

[1] See J. E. Schultz, “The inhospitable hospital: gender and professionalism in civil war medicine,” Signs, 17:363-392, 1992.

[2]  S. J. Weiss, “The language of touch,” Nurs. Res., 28:76-80, 1979; S. J. Weiss, “Psychophysiological effects of caregiver touch on incidence of cardiac dysrhythmia,” Heart and Lung, 15:494-505, 1986; C. A. Estabrooks, “Touch in nursing practice: a historical perspective: 1900-1920,” J. Nursing Hist., 2:33-49, 1987; J. S. Mulaik, et al., “Patients’ perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” W. J. Nursing Res., 13:306-323, 1991.

[3] C. Green, “Philosophic reflections on the meaning of touch in nurse-patient interactions,” Nurs. Phil., 14:242-253, 2013; quoted at pp. 250-251.

[4] Mulaik, “Patient’s perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” pp. 317-318.

[5] “Middle managers” is the characterization of the nursing historian Barbara Melosh, in “Doctors, patients, and ‘big nurse’: work and gender in the postwar hospital,” in E. C. Lagemann, ed., Nursing History: New Perspective, New Possibilities (NY: Teachers College Press, 1983), pp. 157-179.  

[6] M. Sandelowski, Devices and Desires:  Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 166.

[7] On the revalorization of the feminine in nursing in the Nursing Theory Movement of the 70s and 80s, see Sandelowski, Devices and Desires, pp. 131-134.

[8] See R. L. Pullen, et al., “Men, caring, & touch,”  Men in Nursing, 7:14-17, 2009.

[9] The work of Regina Morantz-Sanchez is especially illuminating of this binary and the major protagonists at the two poles.  See R. Morantz, “Feminism, professionalism, and germs: the thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell,” American Quarterly, 34:459-478, 1982, with a slightly revised version of the paper in R. Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 [1985]), pp. 184-202.

[10] I have written about the “generalist gaze” in P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor:  Remembering my Father’s Medicine (Montclair, NJ: Keynote Books, 2011), pp. 62-66, and more recently in P. E. Stepansky, “When generalist values meant general practice: family medicine in post-WWII America” (precirculated paper, American Association for the History of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, May 16-19, 2013).

[11] Therapeutic touch was devised and promulgated by the nursing educator Delores Krieger in publications of the 1970s and 80s, e.g., “Therapeutic touch:  the imprimatur of nursing,” Amer. J. Nursing, 75:785-787, 1975; The Therapeutic Touch (NY: Prentice Hall, 1985); and Living the Therapeutic Touch (NY:  Dodd, Mead, 1987).  I share the viewpoint of Therese Meehan, who sees the technique as a risk-free nursing intervention capable of potentiating a powerful placebo effect (T. C. Meehan, “Therapeutic touch as a nursing intervention,” J. Advanced Nursing, 1:117-125, 1998).

[12] For a fairly recent examination of transgressive touch and its ramifications, see G. O. Gabbard & E. P. Lester, Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis (Arlington, VA: Amer. Psychiatric Pub., 2002). 

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.