100 years of nursing
This fascinating new exhibition covers the history of the nursing profession in Iceland and how it has dealt with gender issues and developments in science and technology. The story begins in Reykjavík at the start of the twentieth century and ends in the present day, but it also considers what the future holds: How will the nursing profession change? What can we learn from history? Why are males still significantly underrepresented in the profession?
By the turn of the twentieth century, Icelandic society was transformed. People left the countryside in droves and flocked to the towns, where some prospered, and others lived in poverty. Poor housing, lack of food and general hygiene threatened the health of the townspeople and living in such proximity enabled the spread of disease.
The responsibility for the care of the sick was transferred to certain charities who provided food, clothing and health care in the home for those who were less well off.
Educated nurses were amongst the best. Many were Danish and had moved to Iceland specifically to work in hospitals which were to rise in the vicinity of Reykjavík.
Nursing was a new and specialized job, requiring much care and sensitivity to the needs of the patient, with a disciplined approach and significant planning.
Training programs were three years long with Icelandic girls studying abroad, in part or full, until the year 1931 when Iceland’s first school of nursing was established.
When the Icelandic Nurse’s Association was founded in the year 1919, there were eleven trained nurses in employment, all of whom were unmarried, without children, and resident within the hospital premises where they also worked.
It was well into the twentieth century before attitudes changed toward the role of women in society. The reduction of working hours, summer holidays, the introduction of maternity leave, nursery school care and the availability of contraception enabled women to work outside the home while also maintaining a family life. Still, today, the nursing profession is based on those same foundations it was built on one hundred years ago, aiming to create a safe environment for the patient, while preventing and alleviating the consequences of disease or injury.
Today there are around three thousand nurses employed in the profession, working in diverse and often highly specialized roles which change in line with advancements in science and technology. Despite this, there are still few male nurses, indicating that antiquated ideologies regarding gender and status are still at play.
Isn’t it time to break the glass ceiling?
Curator: Anna Þorbjörg Þorgrímsdóttir historian