Special issue of Collegian explores nursing and health care history

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How obvious has been the here and now of nursing this year, as we have been enveloped by a historic pandemic for most of 2020, the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. So, while we have been resolutely required to practise social distancing, wear personal protective equipment, quarantine, live in lockdowns and border closures, we at least have an understanding of how the previous experience with Spanish influenza resonates with today. A century later, however, we have the added advantage of more knowledge, technology, and experience that has confirmed or changed the way contagion, and people affected by it, are managed. It is timely then that this special issue of Collegian on nursing and health care history, (available in ClinicalKey) has been published, for what it does is provide a focus on the role of history in shaping professional practices and identity, contributions to health care, as well as the advances in nursing history scholarship.

Using all the resources available to prevent transmission and provide care threw up numerous challenges that had not been faced within the career lifetime of many health professionals. So, while the science is being written about the COVID-19, its control and treatment, it was another pandemic a century past, Spanish influenza, that has provided many of the explorations and comparisons for today. There have been several lectures, zoom gatherings, publications, and so on, where the history of Spanish flu has been the subject. Additionally, in the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, there have been many references to Nightingale’s writing on hand hygiene, and her statistical analysis of health data, amongst other analyses of her contributions which can be traced to contemporary nursing practise and health care. 

Publishing a collection of nursing history literature was first imagined at the meeting of the Australian College of Nursing History Community of Interest which followed its 3rd History Conference held at the Gold Coast in 2018.The participants were keen for the opportunity to contribute to historiography and the unique corpus of nursing knowledge, but access to dedicated nursing history publications was limited. It was therefore proposed to the Collegian Editor-in-Chief, Professor Lisa McKenna, that in light of the historical events occurring in 2020 (pre COVID-19), a special issue on nursing history would be an appropriate celebration for this dedicated year to showcase the indispensable position of nurses and midwives in health care. 

Collegian reached its twenty-sixth year in October 2020. The inaugural issue was launched in October 1994 after members of the former Royal College of Nursing Australia recognised that a refereed journal to disseminate research, and to provide nurses with the opportunity to publish, was going to be essential for the evolution of the profession in Australia. It was not the first journal with this purpose in Australia, but the College leaders had been motivated by professional progress over the previous decade such as: post-graduate education; the development of national competency standards for nurses by the Australasian Nurse Registering Authorities; and, the transfer of pre-registration nurse education to the Australian tertiary sector (1985–1993). Research was an essential constituent for future leadership. 

Under the guidance of its editors there has been a significant movement towards achieving the purpose of the journal, and its international status, as the nursing profession has developed and changed. Helen Hamilton held the honour of inaugural editor and it is a delight to have her as one of the authors for this issue. Specific historical scholarship has appeared from time to time in the journal, emerging from the early days of brief inserts providing a history of nursing platform. But, while the articles have not been limited in their nursing history scope, they have been limited in number. 

But, while the articles have not been limited in their nursing history scope, they have been limited in number. 

Thus, in this 2020 special issue of Collegian on nursing and health care history, a collection of twelve articles is presented. They have been organised into categories as a means to provide a focus and draw attention to each of them, but you will soon see how each of the articles offer many subjects, facets of historical research, and methodologies. This collection of literature is the achievement of an intent to provide researchers and authors with publication and dissemination of their work in a dedicated issue of an international referred journal. One consequence is that this historical perspective provides a stimulus for readers’ review, critical thinking, and reflection on momenta which have or will influence professional practice and scholarship. Another consequence is that the collection is also easily accessible to students, offering an opportunity for educators to introduce nursing history and methodologies for research. The inclusion and teaching of nursing history in some undergraduate courses have been reported as problematic often related to causes such as policy, teaching methods, resources, assessment, and the expertise of the teachers. Students, the prospective leaders in nursing, may be only exposed to limited perceptions of nurses’ or midwives’ contributions to health care. 

Knowledge of history could result in several benefits that would support learning nursing history as a valuable exercise. Some of these included: building reasoning skills, and critical cultural consciousness; developing research skills and the art of caring; and the ability to explain the emergence of health practices. The literature contained in this issue of Collegian is a valuable resource demonstrating that history is not just facts, but examines events and actions within a milieu of context to understand and make sense of how it is possible to practice effectively. 

Being witness to the event of COVID-19 provides a significant opportunity to document contemporary history for future generations of nurses. It is a rich source for analysing policy and practice decisions such as the design of new roles or education, changing the scope of nursing practice, and reflecting on the past: what did or did not happen, and how was it received. 

McAllister et al. (2010) suggest one of the benefits of nursing history is that it is a tool for empowerment. The evidence is before us as to how relevant to the nursing profession, its advancement and practice, is the modern study of nursing history that is analytical. I now invite you to review and reflect on the scholarship within this special issue of Collegian on nursing and health care history as the authors demonstrate their contribution to the body of knowledge belonging to nursing.

All of us at some time in our professional careers will have in the past, or will in the future, participate in the cusp of change, the discovery of new knowledge, or progressive development of the profession. That time may be now. 

Marilyn A.Gendek
Australian College of Nursing