Professor and Director of the UK Centre for the History of Nursing and Midwifery and Chair of the UK Association for the History of Nursing
During the plagues of Medieval and Early Modern Europe, it was nurses, many of them belonging to religious communities, who put their lives in danger by entering the homes of the sick - places that were shunned and avoided by everyone else. When bubonic plague – the so-called Black Death – became endemic in the fleas carried on Europe’s black rat population, city-states were subjected to frequent outbreaks. Italy was one of the worst-affected regions. Unhygienic conditions meant that rat populations expanded rapidly and commercial travel ensured that these disease-carrying vectors could move easily from place-to-place. The bacterium, later to be known as Yersinia pestis, mutated – a new, highly virulent airborne strain appeared as pneumonic plague – a form that could be transmitted directly from person to person, with a case-fatality rate of 80%. Populations reacted by isolating sufferers. In cities like Venice and Florence, the sick were moved to isolation hospitals called lazzaretti, where conditions were appalling. ‘Attendants on the sick’ had no professional identity, did not belong to any unions and had no workers’ rights. They were as trapped as their patients. Yet stories of immense courage came out of these places of horror, and some nurses did survive. Like Will Pooley, they used the immunity conferred by such survival to continue their work.
|The Ebola virus|
And bubonic plague is not the only world pandemic that can provide lessons. At the end of the First World War, the world’s population, weakened by four years of industrial warfare, deprivation and food shortages, experienced one of its worst-ever pandemics: the so-called Spanish influenza. Nurses in military hospitals wrote of how, on Armistice day, 11 November, 1918 - as entire populations were engulfed in the heady atmosphere of victory - they themselves could only watch helplessly as young men who had survived active war-service died horrible deaths, suffocating, their faces turning blue or black, their entire systems shutting-down. The virus killed within days, sometimes within hours, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds – but predominantly young, apparently healthy adults. Again, it was nurses who were at the forefront of the fight against disease. Historian, Arlene Keeling has shown how the visiting nurses of cities like New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia went into the homes of the sick and dying, taking canisters of soup to helpless victims and offering the fundamental nursing care that kept bodies alive until immune systems had a chance to react. Many of these nurses, themselves, caught the disease, and some died.
|Health workers dressed to handle Ebola victims|