Barbara Brodie and Nursing History

Profiles in Nursing

Barbara Brodie and Nursing History

What nurses do is important enough to write down

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Barbara Brodie likes nursing history…any history really. She can cite Civil War stats right along with interesting facts about the history of nursing. Of course, teaching at the University of Virginia places her right in the middle of the land of Thomas Jefferson. She is, in fact, a pioneer in the establishment of nursing history as a serious field of scholarly research. As a serious historian, and recently named a “living legend” by the American Academy of Nurses, Brodie will tell you, history is not so much about the names and dates, though these are important. It is more about the why and how. Well, then, why did this nurse work to bring about this particular change? How was such progress possible just at this particular time?

Now Emerita Professor of Nursing at the University of Virginia, Brodie was an early leader in a group of colleagues who created the American Association for the History of Nursing. Since its inception in 1978, this group has fostered the study of nursing history. It is open not only to academic researchers but also to ordinary nurses who love history.  Later, as president of AAHN, Brodie worked to establish its official journal, the Nursing History Review.

She is also founding director (1991–2002) of UV’s Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry. The center serves to collect and systematically conserve whatever there is of the record of nursing. Brodie said some areas provide a significant challenge because for so long society, and even nurses themselves, thought that “what nurses did was not important enough to write down.” She points out, for instance, that notes made by a private duty nurse may be the only record remaining of an important event.

Over time, and with the influence of Brodie, the study of nursing history has evolved. It is no longer a series of laudatory profiles beginning and ending with Florence Nightingale. Nurse historians work like other academic historians, looking at original sources and asking hard questions. And in the field, Brodie stands for advanced scholarship; a post-doctoral fellowship is named after her.

Brodie reports that she has always been on a duel track, the only choice for any nurse who wishes to do nursing history at the university level. There simply is not a way to have a career solely in nursing history. Instead, this expertise must be paired with some other area of concentration. It is not an easy undertaking.

In her case, Brodie has also concentrated on maternal child health. Many of her earlier articles were about children, and the topics ranged from baby’s milk as a source of trust between mothers and nurses to children born with adrenogenital syndrome. “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’s Pediatric World” (CHC Winter, 1986, vol. 14, no. 3) is interesting and timely, even today.

She is also recognized as one of the moving forces behind the increased emphasis on graduate clinical preparation, particularly the pediatric nurse practitioner movement. Joan Lynaugh, herself a prominent nurse historian, credits Brodie with establishing the first “modern” doctoral program in nursing at the University of Virginia. In this way, too, Brodie has influenced nurses throughout the profession.

What about the future of her field?  Brodie acknowledges that today’s students lack much in the way of historical background or appreciation for nursing history. Most curricula leave very little room for electives. Yet a good understanding of the profession’s history is critical to nursing practice today. If we understand how nursing evolved from a religious vocation into a secular career, we will come closer to understanding how to make nursing combine idealism with a solid financial footing. Understanding how women came to dominate the profession helps us understand the status of nursing and its relationship to medicine; it can also help remedy some of the problems nursing faces in recruiting men and minorities.

We can’t all do the uncommon and the difficult; but we can appreciate those, like Barbara Brodie, who did. She deserves it!  

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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