The evolution of nursing: Then and now

By | 2022-02-23T15:09:50-05:00 August 22nd, 2013|1 Comment

How times have changed; and nursing is no exception. Here’s our snapshot view of how the nursing profession has evolved over the last 150 years.


No change is more glaring than the nurse uniform. Gone is the stark-white dress uniform with the cap of yesteryear. Nurses are wearing scrub tops and pants that allow for movement and suit both men and women.

Then: Nurse Uniforms (Photo by Kaiser Permanente) Now: Nurse Uniforms (Photo by Ben Jenkins for


The nursing shoe of yore typically sported a heel and pinpoint design. Thankfully nursing shoes have evolved to provide supportive comfort that eases the load of a long shift.

Then: Nursing Shoes (Photo by American Duchess) Now: Nursing Shoes (Photo by Ben Jenkins for


A lot of you recall (maybe even very fondly) handwritten notes, charts and orders. Electronic medical records have advanced medicine in many ways, but a paper chart does sound simpler at times.


Hello …. operator? The days of phones and switchboards are no longer. Phones have gotten smaller, wireless and smarter. Nearly 70% of nurses use smartphone devices for work related activities. Many nurses also carry work-issued portable phones while on the job.

Nursing School

Nursing school curriculum has made leaps and bounds in the last 150 years. Read this excerpt from the American Association for the History of Nurses Inc. Nurses often worked 12-hour days, going to classes during the day and at night. Now many nursing schools have gone high-tech, with simulation labs where students can practice real life clinical situations. Diploma programs have been replaced with associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs, with a push by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Future of Nursing Report for 80% of nurses to have their BSN by the year 2020.

Then: Nursing School (The American Association for the History of Nursing, Inc.) Now: Nursing School (Photo by East Country Magazine)


Once upon a time, mercury glass thermometers were the rage. Now we have temporal thermometers that measure core body temp in seconds. Given the option, the right choice is a no brainer.

Some Things Never Change, Not Really


No matter how you slice it, a good old analog clock or watch is a must-have tool for taking vital signs or documenting during a code.

In the community

Public health nursing was conceptualized in the late 1800s by Lillian Wald, who felt that nurses must not only treat the sick, but address social and economic disparity as well. Today nurses have an even greater presence in the community, as complex patients spend less time in the hospital and need increasing coordination of care.

On the front lines

Nurses have been serving in the US military since the Revolutionary War, although it wasn’t until 1901 that the Nurse Corps became a part of the Army Medical Department. Today military nurses serve throughout the world in both military and humanitarian efforts.

Then: Front Lines (Photo by WW2 US Medical Research Center) Now: Front Lines (Photo by Today’s Military)

Caring for the sick

High tech or low tech, scrubs or white caps, nurses have been caring for the sick (and their families) through it all. Roles and circumstances may change, but the essence of what nurses do never will.

Then: Caring for Sick (Courtesy of the Library of Congress: LC-USF34-026730-D Herrin Hospital in Illinois, 1939) Now: Caring for Sick (Photo by Vanderbilt University)

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One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Carla J Coffman April 7, 2020 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    Ever heard of photographs, pictures, illustrations even?

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