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Say Little, Do Much

Nursing, Nuns, and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century

By Sioban Nelson

Publication Year: 2001

In the nineteenth century, more than a third of American hospitals were established and run by women with religious vocations. In Say Little, Do Much, Sioban Nelson casts light on the work of these women's religious communities. According to Nelson, the popular view that nursing invented itself in the second half of the nineteenth century is historically inaccurate and dismissive of the major advances in the care of the sick as a serious and skilled activity, an activity that originated in seventeenth-century France with Vincent de Paul's Daughters of Charity.

In this comparative, contextual, and critical work, Nelson demonstrates how modern nursing developed from the complex interplay of the Catholic emancipation in Britain and Ireland, the resurgence of the Irish Church, the Irish diaspora, and the mass migrations of the German, Italian, and Polish Catholic communities to the previously Protestant strongholds of North America and mainland Britain. In particular, Nelson follows the nursing Daughters of Charity through the French Revolution and the Second Empire, documenting the relationship that developed between the French nursing orders and the Irish Catholic Church during this period. This relationship, she argues, was to have major significance for the development of nursing in the English-speaking world.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Studies in Health, Illness, and Caregiving


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Chapter 1. "Say Little, Do Much": Veils of Invisibility–Nursing Nuns

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pp. 7-10

Some years ago at a North American nursing conference I delivered a paper on religious nurses and their impact on the nursing profession and the health care system. When I had finished, a woman stood to make a statement. She told the conference that she was of Boston Irish Catholic stock. She had worked....

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Chapter 2. Martha's Turn: Vowed Women and Virtuous Work

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pp. 11-31

The spiritual paths open to women over the centuries of Christian practice were shaped by the popular New Testament story of the sisters Martha and Mary. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and washed his feet in expensive oils. Martha fussed, providing food for the apostles and followers, and criticized Mary's...

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Chapter 3. Free Enterprise and Resourcefulness: An American Success Story–The Daughters of Charity in the Northeast

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pp. 32-55

In the second half of the nineteenth century Catholic hospitals, owned and conducted by communities of vowed Catholic women, were playing a major role in hospital foundation in the United States. In fact, Catholic sisters founded a total of 299..

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Chapter 4. Behind Enemy Lines: Religious Nursing in England–Conflicts and Solutions

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pp. 56-79

Like their sisters in Ireland, France, Germany and the United States, pious nineteenth-century English women felt the call to serve God through work with His needy. The most famous nurse of all time, Miss Florence Nightingale, was one such...

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Chapter 5. At the Margins of the Empire: Religious Wars in the Hospital Wards of Colonial Sydney

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pp. 80-99

Despite its position at the very margins of the British Empire, colonial New South Wales played its part in the Nightingale movement for the reform of nursing.1 As patriotic members of the British Empire, colonials contributed generously to the...

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Chapter 6. Frontier: "The Means to Begin Are None"

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pp. 100-125

Despite the vast number of immigrants crowding into the industrial north of the United States, changing forever the ethnic composition of the country, the Catholic sisterhoods did not restrict their efforts to the needy poor of the cities....

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Chapter 7. Crossing the Confessional Divide: German Catholic and Protestant Nurses

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pp. 126-150

Immigration is a tale of the movement not only of peoples, but of social practices. Religious nursing could be understood as one such social practice, one that many German peoples sought to reestablish in the New World...

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Chapter 8. The Twentieth Century: "Every Day Life Got Smaller"

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pp. 151-164

When Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the American Sisters of Charity struggled with her call from God during the first decade of the nineteenth century, she could scarcely have dreamed that by the century's end Catholic women would have built the largest health care network in the country....


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p. 165


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pp. 167-211


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pp. 213-225


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pp. 227-233


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pp. 235-237

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202908
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812217834

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 8 illus.
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: Studies in Health, Illness, and Caregiving
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OCLC Number: 759158248
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Say Little, Do Much

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Nursing -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Monastic and religious life of women.
  • Hospitals.
  • Sisterhoods.
  • Caring -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
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