Episode 1. Ancient Origins of Nursing: The Rise and Fall

When you think of nursing, what comes to mind? Probably not Greek women working in an ancient temple or women being named saints. But hey, history is full of surprises. Join us as Charlotte teaches Alesha about the rise and fall of the incredibly important profession of nursing. We will start in 2575 BCE and will end in 1800 CE as we travel from the pyramids of Egypt to the Roman forum and back around to the churches of medieval Europe. In this journey, we will learn about the beginning of the nursing profession and seek to understand how society’s perceptions of women have affected nurses throughout history and today.

Feminist Corner

  • Agency is having the ability or opportunity to make a choice for yourself.
  • For example, being able to choose your career path or to choose what would be best for you and your circumstances.

It’s interesting how the nursing profession’s reputation was diminished once it became a profession of the lower class. Any relations to the profession today?

How does the nursing career relate to what women were allowed to do at the time by society? How did their agency tie to the ideas of the time?

As future physicians and women what can we take away from this?

Show Notes:

  • This first episode is in honor of the frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic: nurses. We are doing this by discussing the ancient origins of nursing. 
  • When concerned with sources pertaining to women in history, it is important to acknowledge that the sources are rare. Women are often not mentioned in our primary sources, or first-hand accounts. But historians do their best to fill in the empty spaces and learn what we can about the women of history through archeological findings and rare lucky texts. 
  • Ancient Egypt: 2575 BCE – 2150 BCE
    • Women in Egyptian nursing are strongly tied to wet nurses or women who breastfed children that were not their own. Wet nurses were highly regarded as they are depicted in art, through goddesses, and on tombs. Some wet nurses were even buried with their pharaohs. 
    • Dry nurses, nurses who did not breastfeed, were usually men.
  • Ancient Greece: 700 BCE – 100 BCE
    • Due to the social position of women in Greece, women often stayed within the home. This limited nursing practices to taking care of children and family. 
    • Sanitariums, or Greek temples to the god of medicine Asclepius, were a place where women could participate in an organized form of nursing. 
    • The origins of the word ‘nurse’.
      • Latin root: nutrire, to nourish, to look over, or to breast-feed
      • Greek and Turkish words for nursing also means the word ‘sister.’
  • Ancient Rome: 31 BCE – 5th century CE
    • The Catholic church chose wealthy women or widows to be deaconesses. These women were predecessors to nurses and extremely charitable.
    • By 400 CE, there were 40 deaconesses working as Parish nurses in Constantinople. 
    • There are four matrons of nursing from this period: Phoebe, Fabiola, Saint Paula, and Saint Marcella. 
  • Islamic Times: 7th century CE
    • Rufaidah bint Sa’ad was the first Muslim nurse. After the Islamic state was established, she dedicated her life to nursing. She created mobile clinics, taught friends how to care for wounded soldiers, and was said to be very empathetic. 
  • Early Middle Ages: 500 CE – 800 CE
    • After the fall of Rome, intellectual activity began to fall with it. This led to the nursing profession having a stronger tie with the Catholic Church. 
    • In the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, hospitals were being built. Allowing for the profession to grow as the need for nursing grew as well. 
  • Renaissance/ Dark Ages: 1200 CE – 1600 CE
    • At the beginning of the Renaissance, there were over 200,000 nurses across Europe and 150 hospitals in Europe. Medicine and nursing also diverged in this time, as medicine advanced and nursing did not. 
    • In the 16th century, Protestantism took over as the main religion, and women went back to working at home. There were fewer nurses and the role lost its prestige. 
  • The 1800s
    • Nursing is considered a low position for women and women are not encouraged to take up this role. 
    • At least until one special lady came around…


Elhabashy, S., & Abdelgawad, E. M. (2019). The history of nursing profession in ancient Egyptian society. International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences, 11, 100174. doi: 10.1016/j.ijans.2019.100174

Kasule, P. D. O. H. (n.d.). Historical Roots of the Nursing Profession in Islam. Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_401_450/rufaidah_bint_sa.htm

Rosdahl, C. B., & Kowalski, M. T. (2008). Textbook of basic nursing. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Rufaidah: The first Muslim nurse. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.risingkashmir.com/news/rufaidah-the-first-muslim-nurse

The History of Nursing . (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nursingschoolhub.com/history-nursing/Theofanidis, D., & Sapountzi-Krepia, D. (2015). Nursing and Caring: An Historical Overview from Ancient Greek Tradition to Modern Times. International Journal of Caring Sciences, 8(3), 791–800.

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