Historical Development of Nursing Science


Nursing has been in existence since time immemorial. The annals of ancient societies indicate that caregivers existed long before nursing science emerged. During antiquity, there was a major shift in nursing practice. The first known nurse, Phoebe, emerged courtesy of the early Christian church. However, nursing remained a prejudiced undertaking until Florence Nightingale’s time. Her contribution to nursing transformed it from a prejudiced occupation to a respected profession (Parker, 2001). This paper explores the historical development of nursing science, its interaction with other disciplines, and its relationship with the nursing profession.

The Historical Timeline of Nursing Science

Although nursing began long before Florence Nightingale, nursing science began with her contribution to nursing practice. She came into the limelight in 1856 when she led a team of volunteer nurses to care for British troops in Turkey during the Crimean War (Parker, 2001). Nightingale believed that dirt was the root cause of illness. Her approach to patient care was to manipulate the physical and social factors and allow nature to heal the patient. Following the dramatic success of her methods, Nightingale established a model nursing school in 1860 to train students on the ideals of nursing based on her concepts. Her contribution to nursing education coupled with her writings paved the way for the development of modern nursing (Meleis, 2012).

Around the same time (1856), Dorothea Dix championed the establishment of the first mental facility in the US (Parker, 2001). Nurses attended to the needs of these patients and helped them improve. Another key event in the development of nursing came in 1874 when Linda Richards devised a system for the storage of medical records, an important aspect of modern nursing (Parker, 2001).

Almost two decades later (1890), Lavinia Dock came up with the initial drug manual for nurses (Parker, 2001). The manual’s purpose was to help nurses with matching relevant drugs with identified illnesses. Six years later (1896), what later came to be known as the American Nurses Association was founded under the presidency of Isabel Hampton Robb (Parker, 2001).

In 1952, Hildegard Peplau propounded the theory of interpersonal relations (Parker, 2001). The theory outlined a framework that would guide the relationship between nurses and patients. In 1966, Virginia Henderson made another major contribution to the nursing discipline by defining the boundaries of nursing (Parker, 2001). Two years later (1968), Dorothy Johnson developed the behavioral Systems model in which she stressed the importance of effective behavioral functioning as the key to preventing illness (Parker, 2001).

The 1970s saw an explosion in nursing theories with several theories being postulated to guide nursing practice and research. Betty Neuman’s Systems model (1970), Orem’s Self Care Model (1971), and Jean Watson’s Theory of Caring (1979) were outstanding among them (Parker, 2001). In the 1980s several more nursing theories were added to the growing body of nursing theories but the focus began to shift to the improvement of existing theories.

The 1990s and 2000s have been decades of theory utilization. Nursing practice and research espouse the utilization of nursing theories to guide nursing activities. There have been some developments such as the International Nurses Council in Yokohama in 2007 and the inception of the third nurses’ health study in 2010 in the recent past (Meleis, 2012). All these developments seek to improve nursing.

Nursing Science and the Nursing Profession

The relationship between nursing science and the nursing profession took shape in the late nineteenth century. The pioneering works of Florence Nightingale marked the dawn of nursing science as well as the nursing profession. The model nursing school that Nightingale established in 1860 ignited the desire for a proper nursing curriculum that would guide the training of professional nurses (Meleis, 2012).

Therefore, nursing science is the basis for the training of nurses and provides the framework within which nursing practitioners operate. The nursing profession looks to nursing science to train its practitioners and supply them with up-to-date nursing knowledge obtained from research and new clinical experiences to guide its operation. This relationship makes nursing science the foundation of the nursing profession.

The Influence of other Disciplines on Nursing Science

Nursing science largely owes its progress to disciplines such as social sciences, education, philosophy, and religion. These disciplines have cross-pollinated nursing science in various ways to help it grow into what it is today. For example, the development of the interpersonal theory by Peplau (1952) anchored heavily on the psychoanalytic theory, which stems from psychology (Meleis, 2012). The use of the systems, adaptation and stress paradigms to develop nursing theories are further examples of a cross-pollination between nursing and other disciplines (Meleis, 2012).

Economics also contributes to nursing science through the application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs concept to nursing. Patients are handled by prioritizing

critical aspects of their health condition and addressing them first. Further, religion has had a major influence on nursing. Religious values such as the sanctity of life, morality, and playing meaningful roles in the society are an inherent part of nursing today.


Nursing, like other disciplines, has an eventful developmental history. Its growth to its present status is attributable to the documentation of clinical experiences, research, and the contribution of other disciplines. This trend is likely to continue as new technology takes over some roles that were conventionally reserved for nurses. However, despite any future advances, nursing is an entrenched discipline that is highly unlikely to become redundant.


Meleis, A. I. (2012). Theoretical nursing: Development and progress (5th ed.). Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott.

Parker, M. E. (2001). Nursing theories and nursing practice. Philadelphia, Pa: F.A. Davis.

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