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Putting history back into nursing

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"We recognized the need for practical ways to teach the history of nursing in the curriculum," says author and historian Kylie Smith.

Nurses need to know more science and technology than Florence Nightingale ever imagined. The downside: the history of nursing has been sidelined from many nursing school programs. Kylie M. Smith PhD, Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow for Nursing and Humanities at Emory, wants to put it back.

"Today's nurses are nobody's handmaiden," says Smith. "They're confident, armed with evidence, and on the frontline of health care systems. But throughout history, nurses did a lot more than what physicians told them to do. They have always been social activists, patient advocates, and innovators. It's important for nurses and especially nursing leaders to know where they came from. They need to have a historical perspective on how and why their profession developed as it did."

A recent text, Nursing History for Contemporary Role Development (2016), edited by Smith with Sandra B. Lewenson EdD RN FAAN and Annemarie McAllister EdD RN, aims to do just that.

"We recognized the need for practical ways to teach the history of nursing in the curriculum," says Smith, who wrote the chapter on mental health. "This is a toolkit that is easy for faculty to use and students to understand."

Nursing professors don't have to be history experts or wade through 800-page texts in order to teach nursing history. "We've distilled the latest thinking, research, and scholarship and embedded it into chapters that examine key issues in contemporary nursing roles," says Smith. "Teachers can assign an appropriate chapter for reading and discussion. It can be one lecture."

The chapters are diverse, driven by the editors' intent to move beyond the role of hospital nursing. They cover the care of diverse populations, rural health care, mental health care, neonatal health care, the nurse educator role, entry into practice, and more.

Smith is a historian who began her career as research assistant to a dean of nursing and discovered her niche. She went on to earn grants to work in the field of mental health and psychiatric nursing history in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

"Nurses developed their own ideas about what psych/mental health nursing should look like and played a huge role in transforming care," she says. Her current projects include two forthcoming books, Talking Therapy: Knowledge and Power in American Psychiatric Nursing and Jim Crow in the Asylum: Segregation and Psychiatry in the American South.

At Emory, she found her dream job. She gets to conduct research and collaborate with nurses, co-teach a course on Ethics and Social Responsibility, guest lecture in multiple disciplines, teach her popular elective on Nursing for Social Change, and work with graduate students who are interested in history-related projects. Not being a nurse helps her bring a different perspective to the field.

"I get to say things that they can't always say themselves, and that can start students thinking in different ways," Smith says. "Not everyone wants to do history, but as long as there are a few, we can keep the spark alive. We need to pass the torch. If we ignore history, we run the risk of having to reinvent the wheel."—Laura Raines

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