Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Marginalized Healer to Revered Hospital Matron

by Peter Ardern

I had the privilege of commencing my nurse training at the time of the traditional matron and ward sister. I developed a huge respect and still hold fond memories of learning from these highly skilled ladies. Their demise in the 1970s led me to, in the late 1990s, meet with and write about many of their lives and subsequently to examine the history of women in nursing.

The Woman Healer

From pre-history women have been regarded as the passive healers. They succoured the child and mended the wounded-warrior husband. They were the gatherer while the husband was the hunter. Both views can be and should now be challenged.

This ‘passive role’ of women in health has been re-enforced throughout the last two millennia. Custom, practice, and forced exclusion from academic institutions prevented women from attaining a higher education and therefore excluded them from the opportunity to contribute to the science of medicine.

Instead there developed the tradition of the rural, untrained woman healer. Doctors practised mostly for the wealthy or in the larger cities. So to these people the woman healer was virtually the unlicensed doctor, and in the absence of a medical practitioner, healing became the essential responsibility for these mothers and wives.

The techniques these ladies used were learned from family, friends, or from observing other healers.
They were the midwives/abortionists, nurses, and advisors. They could be the equal of pharmacists in cultivating healing herbs and unguents. They travelled from home to home and village to village. These women were effectively doctors without degrees.

Untutored in medicine, they used therapies based on plants, empirics, traditional home remedies, purges, bloodletting, and minor surgery.

They had their own painkillers, digestive aids, and anti-inflammatory agents, using ergot for the pain of labour at a time when the church held that pain in labour was the Lord’s just punishment for Eve’s original sin.

For centuries the female healer performed a service virtually indistinguishable from that of the one so guarded and aggressively defended by academically trained physicians.

Over the centuries, the use of magic, amulets, and incantations were also popular. Unfortunately these proved to be the undoing of many of these healers in the 15th to 17th centuries. In those centuries they became known as witches and charlatans by the authorities. And with this title they were mercilessly persecuted. Many of these women healers were burned because they used ‘cures’ and it only took the accusation of one doctor for ‘the witch’ to be found guilty.

The eighteenth century saw a new tolerance of the healers so long as they did not infringe on the doctor’s territory.

The nurse as we know her

Hospitals and nursing, as we know them, began in the 18th century with the building of new hospitals. The reformation, which began in 1534, had sounded the death knell for the poor sick, by sweeping away the few hospitals there were. This proved so calamitous that Henry the VIII was compelled to open St Thomas in 1550.

In the middle of the seventeenth century larger hospitals were built and the first simple hierarchical structure was in operation in the leading hospitals. It was headed by a triad of medical staff, governors and untrained matrons; then came the sisters, nurses, and helpers. It was not until the nineteenth century that matron’s duties and responsibilities were more clearly defined.

In the early years of the early 19th century, a nurse was simply a woman who happened to be nursing someone – a sick child or an aging relative. There were hospitals, and they did employ nurses. But the hospitals of the time still served largely as refuges for the dying poor with only token care provided. Hospital nurses were often disreputable, prone to drunkenness, prostitution, and thievery; their living conditions were often scandalous.

The religious orders did play a continuous role in providing care for the sick and in improving conditions and were often the only source of care. One among many nursing orders was the Little Company of Mary founded by Mother Mary Potter.

Florence Nightingale

The Nightingale reforms

Florence Nightingale undoubtedly changed nursing. Her basic principles were to lay the foundation of nursing as we were to know it for over a hundred years;
1/ A trained matron to have undisputed authority.
2/ A planned course of theoretical and practical training.
3/ A nurses’ home to be established at every hospital.

With a matron in charge, there were clear lines of accountability that were to be the cornerstone of nursing for over a century. It was the trained matron who was now the respected leader of the hospital. And from her nursing staff she demanded a high commitment of care. The following pledge ensured that.
I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.
I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug.
I will do all in my power to elaborate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping, and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling.
With loyalty will I endeavour to aid the Physician in his work and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.
This was the first of three pledges and avowed by nurses for over sixty years. (This is often mistakenly ascribed to Miss Nightingale; it was however created by the Farrand Nurse Training School in Detroit, in 1892, for Miss Nightingale.)

Dr. Jex-Blake
Through Miss Nightingale the middle-class lady began to have an influence on the working world. These ladies embodied the very spirit of femininity as defined by sexist Victorian society, where nursing was still seen as a natural vocation for women, second only to motherhood. It would take many years before the ladies of nursing stood on equal footing to the men of medicine. Sophia Jex-Blake was the first female English Physician to bridge this gap, but it would take many years before women in medicine could count themselves to be on an equal footing to men.

The departure of the traditional matron and traditional ward sister in the 1970s also saw the demise of the famed mobcap, white cuffs, dark blue uniform, and cape.


In the late 1990s I spent a good two years seeking and interviewing a number of these traditional matrons and sisters. Hence I wrote, When Matron Ruled, The Nursing Sister, and paperback, When Sister Ruled.

My new novel, Dorothy’s Dream, combines many facets of the above history. Inspired by Hettie Ferris, a woman healer, and Aunt Annie, a Nightingale nurse in the Crimea, Dorothy achieves her dream of being a trained nurse. Then she discovers she is still a woman in a man’s world.

Dorothy’s Dream, A Historic Romance, is now available on Amazon.


  1. Women healers knew what worked and I suspect their patients trusted them more than doctors anyway. ;-) It was a woman healer who discovered the uses of digitalis and a male doctor took the credit for it.

    1. And it still occurs in labs and boardrooms and public agencies worldwife.

  2. Difficult for Henry V111 to have been compelled to do anything in 1550, including open a hospital, as that was three years after his death. Also somewhat misleading, as all your examples seem to be from England, to write that women were "burned" as witches. They were not burned in England or in the colonies - witchcraft was a felony, for which the maximum penalty was hanging.

  3. Great article, thank you for posting, and I see that they hung witches in henry VIII's England, did that include women who said the rosary? I would like to know more about how The Holy Catholic Church developed nursing into what it is today. cheers

  4. Great article! What a journey for women healers! Ironically, modern medicine is finding cures in many of the old plants that were reviled as part of witchcraft in the days of persecution.

  5. Fascinating post! Florence Nightingale was really ahead of her time:)

    1. Not according to Dr "James" Barry, a woman who had to disguise herself as a man to study and practise medicine. She told off the sainted Florence in public for not being clean enough(and as a result lost her standing and was called a cad and worse, as Miss Nightingale had a lot of fans).

  6. Margret Fuller was doing such nursing in the 1840'a in Italy during the revolution. What Miss Nightingale had ( and why she gets the notice) was a system and an insistence that such field nursing become accepted Army policy. That was quite a battle It seems changing dressings is somewhat easier than changing minds. Accepted policy is power. It's not being there as a result of begging and or a one off indulgence. So of course there was resistance.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece Peter. My paternal grandmother was a Sister in a local maternity hospital and when my Dad collected her from night shifts, he would occasionally take me along to see the 'new' babies. As a child I always wanted to be a nurse, though never took that route. However, in 2007 I trained as an Aromatherapist, healing and helping through plant oils and massage. She remains an inspiration to me and I hope some of her is evident in the healing Seers and Druids I write into my novels.

  8. A nice blog post about the woman healer through history. Something I can appreciate because my own mother was a nurse.

    BTW, I wrote my own blog article about nursing that touches more on nursing from the 19th and early 20th centuries. http://tammayauthor.com/index.php/2015/09/22/past-blast-tuesday-a-short-history-of-nursing-in-america/


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