Journal of Professional Nursing

Commemorating Nursing: An Exercise in Historical Imagination

Pamela J. Wood, RN, PhD, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Nursing and Midwifery, Victoria University of Wellington

Reference:  Wood, P.J. (2005). Commemorating nursing: An exercise in historical imagaination. Nursing Praxis in New Zealand, 21(2), 47-56.  


From the early 1900s, New Zealand nurses joined an international tradition of commemorating nurses and significant nursing events by establishing memorials. These were acts of ‘historical imagination’. This article proposes that nurses have erected four kinds of memorial ‘stones’ on their professional landscape: ‘scratchstones’ (simple markers of identity), touchstones (tangible links to nurses in the past), boundary stones (markers of exemplary service or extreme sacrifice) and milestones (markers of the past which guide professional direction). The article also argues that nursing memorials serve five functions: they perpetuate memory, honour, inspire emulation, shape professional identity and demonstrate the profession’s worthiness. The article also explores the tensions surrounding memorials and finally considers their durability and place in the profession’s present and future.  

Nursing history, historical imagination, commemoration, memorials

Just three decades after the establishment of a Nightingale system of nursing in New Zealand in the early 1880s, nurses were engaging in an exercise in historical imagination. Whether prompted by a need to acknowledge the achievements of pioneering nurses, honour those who had died in wartime service, or mark events in which nurses had provided a vital service under exceptional circumstances, nurses were seeking ways to commemorate aspects of their history. These activities also served a professional agenda. Nurses understood, perhaps intuitively, that such commemorative acts could help add a sense of legitimacy to a female occupation seeking professional standing. They saw the benefit of showing others, as well as themselves, that they were part of a much larger professional body, with a tradition of commemoration set by longer established nursing groups in other countries.1 They also recognised the opportunities these commemorative acts gave them to point out nurses’ exemplary service to those outside the profession, and to encourage those within it to emulate the achievements of their nursing forebears. Whatever the motivation which prompted these acts, their commemorative nature necessitated nurses’ engagement of their ‘historical imagination’. This is a term that has been used by a few writers in fields such as history, literary criticism and anthropology, emerging particularly with Hayden White’s use of it in describing the craft and approach of nineteenth-century historians,2 but the term does not seem to have been addressed in nursing literature. I am using the term more broadly than White, and in relation to a professional group with a quite different focus – nurses rather than historians. In particular, I am exploring it here as a form of thinking and action in which nurses held the past in their consciousness, valued its preservation and envisaged its potential for the future. Establishing a memorial fund, putting up a plaque or collecting mementoes were acts of historical imagination. This article considers the various ways in which nurses have commemorated their professional past, the purposes this commemoration has served and the place it might have in our professional present and future.

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