HHH column: A reincarnation of a nursing conference by Nannie Wiegman
The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contribution. This month, the floor is for Nannie Wiegman, independent nurse historian at Bureau Wiegman and director of Stichting Zuster Vernède. In this column, Nannie reflects on a 130-year-old conference that brought the Dutch nursing world together. Many things were different compared to this year’s edition of the European Nursing Congress, happening in just over a week. For more information on the Congress, visit this page.
A reincarnation of a nursing conference: The European Nursing Congress past and present
Starting on 4 October 2022, the 6th European Nursing Congress will take place online and in different hubs across the Netherlands. In a marathon session of 4 days, hundreds of nurses from all over Europe will discuss the theme “Future Proof Nursing. Nurses as Key Drivers of Change”. This congress is a reincarnation of a conference from 1892, exactly 130 years ago.
In 1892, the Dutch nursing world was all aflutter. Everyone was focused on the first conference for nurses, the so-called “Samenkomst van Belangstellenden in Ziekenverpleging” (“Gathering of Interested Parties in Nursing”), also simply known as the “Gathering”. This large event, held for the very first time, was meant to showcase how nursing had become an established profession. For a long time, home nursing in the Netherlands had stayed more popular than nursing in hospitals. With this conference, the Netherlands showed that it no longer lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of recognizing nurses as paid hospital workers.
Although the speakers, all of them physicians, tried to claim the honour for the conference, the idea came from nurse Johanna Paulina (Anna) Reynvaan (1844-1920) and feminist Jeltje de Bosch Kemper (1836-1916), two ladies with guts. The aim of the Gathering was to achieve more unity in the education and the examination of nurses. This was still rather a haphazard affair, as each hospital followed a different procedure. After extensive preparations, the nursing conference took place on October 4 and 5, 1892, in Amsterdam.
As participants reached the venue, the classroom of the recently opened Wilhelmina-Gasthuis was nearly filled to capacity. Estimates of the number of attendants went as high as 250, even though, officially, 175 participants of the conference were registered. A wide variety of organisations had assembled, Christian as well as secular, all active in the field of nursing in the Netherlands. The collaboration of so many parties made the conference extraordinary. Directors of hospitals, physicians, ministers and managers of private organisations were present, together with politicians and municipal functionaries. For two days, ideas were exchanged on urgent issues in nursing, including the unity of exams and diplomas, the importance of organized home nursing, and the education of psychiatric nurses.
Still, these important men were not the main attraction. Much more attention was paid to the many women seated in the hall. Female directors, deputy directors, head nurses and private nurses were among the crowd in the Wilhelmina-Gasthuis. “Ordinary” nurses who had managed to get a day off were also present. Among them, the “fresh-looking nurses” of the Wilhelmina-Gasthuis, colouring the rows with their blue uniforms, were especially remarked upon. Many of the nurses were wearing the prescribed uniform of their own hospital, which gave a pleasant, colourful impression. But not everyone was charmed. The physician G. C. Nijhoff, one of the speakers at the conference, had a different opinion. In his report for the Dutch Periodical for Medical Science, he noted that the uniforms “gave some [nurses] a tasteful appearance, while looking awful on others”.
It was also remarkable that the conference had a female president, Jeltje de Bosch Kemper, a noblewoman from a family of ministers, governors and politicians. But even if a substantial number of leading women in the nursing world was present at the conference, none of them was among the speakers. Not a single female director gave a lecture, not even Anna Reynvaan, who initially came up with the idea for the conference. All lectures were given exclusively by prominent (male) physicians. And even though the shaping of the nursing profession, the nursing education requirements, and the examination of future nurses were fiercely debated after the lectures, none of the nurses present participated. It need not surprise us that the most important conclusions of this “Gathering” were rather trivial: that there should be more collaboration and more unity between the different hospitals and institutes.
A successful conference, people said at the time. The newspapers were jubilant. But one might ask, would the modernization of the nursing profession not have taken a different course, if the nursing directors and the nurses themselves had been able to voice their wishes at the conference? The Gathering cannot be called more than a hesitant exercise in professionalization. For the 6th European Nursing Congress, the reincarnation of the “Gathering” taking place this October, expectations are rather different. Many of the issues discussed 130 years ago, such as the professionalization of nursing, are now seen as problems of the past. Yet some things have stayed the same: nurses have little influence on larger issues of public health, and their organizations are often ignored. Let us hope that the new edition of the Gathering will contribute towards changing this situation.
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