Who Cared for the Carers? A Study of the Occupational Health of General and Mental Health Nurses 1890 to 1948
Palmer, Deborah Lyn
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis set out to explore the neglected field of nurses’ occupational health. Evidence from the three case study hospitals confirms that attitudes toward nurses’ health changed between 1888 and 1948. The health of nurses was an issue that was always taken seriously but each institution approached the problem differently and responses showed much variation over time. There were good reasons for this but the failure to adopt a coherent and consistent policy worked to the detriment of nurse health. This difficulty helps explain the ambiguous treatment of occupational health within wider histories of nursing. This can lead to the erroneous conclusion that occupational health was somehow neglected by contemporary actors, thereby facilitating the omission of the subject from historical studies concentrating on professional projects and the wider politics of nursing. This study takes a different approach showing that occupational health issues were inexorably connected to these nursing debates. Occupational health cannot be understood without reference to professional projects. This is as true in debates where occupational health was obscured as it was in cases of overt concern. The history of the occupational health of nurses is also important because it offers a new perspective on two other themes central to nursing history, particularly class and gender. This focus helps understand why attitudes towards the care of sick nurses changed over time and varied between different types of institutions. By concentrating on individual nurses’ experiences we reveal something new about the way national conversations affected ordinary nurses’ lives. Recognition that nursing presents a serious occupational health risk is a relatively recent phenomenon; it was not until the 1990s that most nurses had access to occupational health units. This study not only sheds light on why nurses’ health attracted little attention before the Second World War but also explains why this situation began to change from the 1940s.
PhD in Medical History