In the third century A.D. nursing duties shifted from women to men who belonged to an organization called the Parabolani Brotherhood. These men tended to the sick and dying during the great plague in Alexandria. With the era of the Crusades (1096 to 1291) groups of men known as Knighthood Orders took over nursing duties.
This changed in northern Europe with the era of the Crusades during the years 1096 to 1291. Groups such as the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in Jerusalem took over nursing duties. These Orders of brothers in arms provided care to sick and/or injured fellow Crusaders. Orders such as the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in Jerusalem and the Teutonic Knights built and managed battlefield hospitals, setting the standard for hospital administration in Europe during the Crusade years.
Founded in 1431, the Alexian Brotherhood was organized, combining religion, chivalry, charity and military prowess. In the Middle Ages, this and other Knighthood Orders were responsible for removing wounded comrades from the battlefield and providing medical care for their injuries.
During this time, for women, the caring of the infirm in non- battlefield situations became the duty of prisoners or prostitutes. This dark age of nursing saw female nurses degraded and tending to the ill or infirm became the most menial of tasks.
Males continued to be primary providers of fundamental nursing care and, indeed, the first identified nurse in what was to become the United States of America was Juan de Mena, who shipwrecked off the coast of southern Texas seventy years prior to the arrival of the pilgrims at Plymouth Landing. Although Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton lead the way for women in nursing in the 1800’s, hospitals often employed only men as nurses in the early 1800’s. Men were also called upon once again to provide nursing care on the battlefield during the Civil War. Receiving less acclaim than Nightingale and Barton, males served in both the Union and Confederate armies, providing care for wounded soldiers. One notable male nurse of record during this time was Walt Whitman, who served in Washington, DC during this period and recorded his experiences in a collection of poems (“Drumtaps”).
The use of males by the US military forces could perhaps be called the origination of the military medical corps. However, as female nurses gained in reputation, their nursing organization (the American Nurses Association / ANA) succeeded in excluding males from serving as nurses for the military and also from participating in the ANA. In 1901, the US Army Nurse Corp was formed as an exclusively female organization and for the first time, battlefield nursing was no longer dominated by male nurses.
It was not until 1930 that the first male nurse was allowed to become a member of the ANA and not until 1955 until a male was commissioned in the Army Nurse Corp. At this time, the number of male nurses in the civilian population started to increase. However, the largest proportion of male nurses gravitated to military service. Approximately 30 – 35% of the military nursing population is male, as compared to 6% in civilian medical facilities.
As males entered the medical workforce, nursing uniforms started a transformation. The starched white dress and nursing cap gave way to more comfortable and suitable uniform scrubs. These garments were of basic design with few pockets and finished seams, giving them fewer places for bacteria to collect and hide. Even though the majority of nurses were female, uniform scrubs were unisex, created with male sizing and patterning. The boxy fit was not generally flattering to the female body.
At this juncture, to accommodate the female nurse companies such as Cherokee Scrubs and Dickies Scrubs created uniform scrubs with figure flattering styles for the female body and a variety of fashion colors and prints. By the 1990’s uniform scrubs had become the nursing uniform of choice of most nurses, as they were easier and more comfortable to work in.
The number of male nurses in civilian medical facilities has steadily grown, reaching as high as 20% in some hospitals. Male nurses have typically been assigned to duties on floors such as orthopedics where strength is a positive asset. However, male nurses are now accepted in all areas, including labor and delivery, NICU, and pediatric units. Nursing as a profession has reached new highs of respectability and professionalism, with individuals being regarded as health care professionals, instead of being differentiated as male or female nurses.
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