- Nurses and Disasters: Global, Historical Case Studies ed. by Arlene W. Keeling, Barbra Mann Wall
How have trained nurses faced the dangers of working in fires, floods, epidemics, bombing attacks, and other disasters? Generally, they have performed admirably, according to Nurses and Disasters: Global, Historical Case Studies, a new volume edited by Arlene Keeling and Barbra Mann Wall. However, nurses have rarely received adequate recognition for these efforts, these case studies indicate. As Dorothy “Dottie” Worchester stated in describing her work at a Bar Harbor, Maine, hospital in October 1947 while a forest fire enveloped the town, “Nurses never got the credit that they deserved. They just did what had to be done” (p. 201).
The volume comprises a prelude and ten engaging, clearly written case studies spanning 130 years (1885–2012). As a sequel to Keeling and Wall’s first edited volume, Nurses on the Front Line: When Disaster Strikes, 1878–2010 (2011),1 it will interest nursing students and practitioners as well as historians of both nursing and disasters. These two volumes represent the only significant scholarly efforts to bring together the fields of disaster history and nursing history. While the 2011 book focused mainly on nursing in U.S. disasters, this new book encompasses nursing in emergencies across the globe.
Nurses and Disasters can be viewed as an important addendum to Keeling and Wall’s 2011 book. It offers additional U.S. case studies including chapters on nursing in the 1913 Ohio flood, which became a dress rehearsal for the large-scale mobilization of U.S. nurses in World War I; the 1918–19 influenza epidemic in Alaska, which overwhelmed doctors and nurses; U.S. Army nurses’ heroic triage for mass casualties during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the Bar Harbor fire; and nurses’ evacuation of intensive care patients from New York City hospitals during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.
But this volume’s most original contributions lie in the case studies from outside the United States. A chapter on nursing during an 1887 typhoid epidemic in Tasmania, Australia, situates nurses’ response within the “toxic” organizational culture of the local hospital. Conflicts that erupted between the “lady superintendent” and a group of younger Scottish nurses trained in the model established by Florence Nightingale illustrate the tensions between an emergent culture of professionalism and traditional ideas of nursing as a lay vocation—tensions that will be familiar to scholars of nursing history and women’s history during this period. This chapter’s depiction of nurses’ tireless, intimate care for typhoid patients, despite the associated risks of contracting the disease themselves, also highlights one of the book’s recurrent themes: that most trained nurses have remained on duty in the face of extreme danger, prioritizing patient care over personal safety. In a later chapter, readers encounter Japanese Red Cross nurses at Hiroshima’s Mitaki Army Hospital on the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the city. In an oral history interview, head nurse Shige Hirano explained that [End Page 557] she was “of course anxious about what was happening” when the bomb’s shock wave hit the hospital, “but I was the head nurse and the handover [from night shift to day shift] was not yet finished” (p. 188). Chapters exploring nurses’ care for victims of the London bombing “Blitz” and the 2003 Toronto SARS epidemic include similarly dramatic stories. These case studies support the editors’ argument that “time after time, nurses do accept risks to their own health in order to fulfill their professional commitments” (p. xiv).
This argument provides a unifying logic to a volume that otherwise reads like an assortment of gripping disaster stories. The editors assembled this book at the height of the 2014–15 West African Ebola outbreak, when dilemmas over nurses’ personal freedom and safety versus their duty to care loomed large in the minds of nursing and public health leaders. It would have been instructive had the editors more explicitly discussed how this context...