History of Nursing: Rise of Women Deaconess and its Implications

The origin of the word nursing is a Latin word: ‘nutrire’, which had a literal meaning of wet-nurse in beginning. However, in last few centuries, it earned its more holistic meaning of caring for someone who is incapable to look after himself. (Andrson O, 1966). According to Macy (2007), whenever the history of nursing is mentioned, a reference to deaconess is inevitable. In his book named Women Deacons, he has mentioned that these women have existed from the time of Jesus Christ an and traces were consistently found till the 13th century. The tradition was revived in the 1840s and then it spreader in many parts of Europe (chiefly in Germany and the Netherlands), Britain and USA. Then at the beginning of the 19th century, after the rise of secularism and decline in religious power. Although, it is still found in many orthodox hospitals in Europe.

Keatings and Dick (1989) mention different traces of mention of deaconess. They also see it as the rise of feminism and women empowerment in the medical field, one of the considerable event of 4th century. The Fathers of that century like Gregaro of Nyasa and Basil of Caesarea mentioned these deaconess and held that many households cannot be entered by men, rather women deaconess should be promoted. Olympia, the deaconess (361 AD) was considered one of the most iconic and influential deaconesses. Even though she was banished to the Egyptian desert due to her popularity, her charitable nature and healing powers are still celebrated by many people.

Another praiseworthy name in this field is of Theodor Fliedner and his wife who inaugurated the first deaconess motherhouse in Kaiserswerth (Winter, 1965). They provided young women with food, shelter, training, uniforms to prepare them not only for nursing but for childcare in their marital home as well. William Passavant was an American pastor who visited Fliedner and brought many women deaconess in the United States and started various training academies in different cities of America. In the 1910s, Anna Alexandra was the first African American deaconess, and who spent her entire life in serving infirm. As the time passed, many new schools were opened in the USA but young girls started preferring university nursing studies and field of social work provided by government rather than these private deaconess schools, which is one of the major factor responsible for a decline of these private schools.

Chua & Clegg (1990) consider this one of the initial phases of women empowerment when even religious recognized the women as better healers and caretakers. Relics serving in royal families started giving pastoral and administrative duties to these women. There is a letter of Paul in Roman indicated structural hierarchy in deaconess, which are even followed today in many well-known hospitals of Europe and USA (Government hospital of New Orleans and Philadelphia being the prime example) (Oslen, 1990).

According to  Laceye (2005), in USA, the growth of deaconess carried many legal implications before the First World War. As they were involved in health care system, they encouraged reforms in legislation for the protection of female workers and health care workers. They became an important part of immigration settlements.

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Laceye W. (2005) Toward The Light’: Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Work Among Immigrant Populations, 1885–1910Methodist History 43#3 pp. 169–182..

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Winter, M. (1965).  “Deaconess”, in Julius Bodensieck, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: The Luther Press.

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