You may be surprised to learn that paid nursing was, traditionally, a male profession. The first nursing school, which opened in India in 250 B.C. only considered men as “pure” enough to be nurses. Over the centuries, however, the role of being a male nurse has come under attack as being “effeminate” or less than masculine. Currently, males make up only about six to seven percent of 2,600,000 nurses.
To counter this image, the American Assembly for Men in Nursing began a tradition of awarding an annual prize for the best U.S. nursing school or college for men. More men today are signing up to serve as nurses. The list below also may encourage men to think about the nursing profession, as it consists of ten men who offered innovations, extreme service and historic credibility to the nursing profession.
As you read this list, you may learn that many men belonged to religious orders or had religious conversions before their nursing profession at the beginning. These occurrences were common, as the church often funded hospital and nursing activities. After the 1500s, male nurses were not sought after and often faced discrimination. Today, thanks to battles won in the fight against discrimination, male nurses join the profession from a desire to help others. Additionally, the pay and benefits are good, nursing is a highly respected occupation, there are far more job openings than there are nurses to fill them.
The list is ordered by time, with the earliest nurses listed first, most recent male nurses listed last.
- St. Benedict (480-547): Also known as Benedict of Nursia (a real place in Umbra), St. Benedict is the patron saint for servants who break their master’s things, the patron saint for gallbladders and other inflammatory ailments, and a patron saint for a happy death. He founded the first Western Christian monastic tradition that focused on spiritual matters. His connection to health is his ability to survive poisoning by blessing the cup offered to him, thereby removing the poison. Today, many hospitals and care units are named for this patron saint.
- Brother Gerard (c. 1040 – 1120; also known as Gerard Thom): Founder of the Hospitallers, also known as the Order of Malta or the Knights of Malta, but known as the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem under Brother Gerard’s leadership until 1118. This group of men provided care to the sick and wounded in Christian hospitals. Gerard expanded the hospital mission by building seven hospitals in Mediterranean ports within fifteen years. The Hospitallers grew rich from their mission and they expanded into Europe and Jerusalem. The Hospitallers originally focused on a vocation that was active in the world (not cloistered in a monastery), but Brother Gerard sought incorporation for the order under the Vatican, and it was granted. The Hospitallers adopted a white, eight-pointed cross as their symbol in honor of the eight beatitudes. They cared for Christians as well as for Muslims, and it is noted that the Jerusalem hospital became the model used by the famous Maisons-Dieu hospitals of France. The Knights of Malta today is the only original military nursing order still in existance, with almost 1,000 years of tending to the sick and poor.
- St. Alexis (Fifth-century Rome): Although venerated as a saint, his status was minimal until he became patron to the Alexians (or, the Alexian Brothers), a group that organized in the 1300s to provide nursing care for Black Death victims. St. Alexis served many years in a hospital located in Edessa, Syria. The Alexian Brothers, a Catholic religious institute or congregation, remains active today and they maintain hospitals throughout the U.S. Their ministry is to acute care, residential elderly care, retirement age and AIDS victims.
- Friar (Fray) Juan de Mena (1500s): A Mexican nurse who tended the sick as a lay brother of the Santo Domingo of Mexico, he was deceived into leaving his province for Spain about seventy years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. A hurricane shipwrecked his ship off the south Texas Coast in 1554, but he — along with Friar Marcos de Mena — survived. However, they were attacked and Friar Juan de Mena received an arrow in the back and died after traveling a short distance. Friar Marcos de Mena was the sole survivor, and he managed to reach Tampico, Mexico with this story. Although Friar de Mena did not minister to the sick in America, he is considered the first nurse to set foot on what would become the U.S.
- Juan Ciudad (1495-1550): Prominently known as “St. John of God,” Ciudad was a Portuguese-born friar and saint who has become one of Spain’s leading religious figures. Although he served first as a soldier for Spain, he later began printing religious books and then experienced a major spiritual conversion. From there, he expended all his energy in caring for the neediest people of Granada. He organized another order of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, although — for a time — he was a one-man operation. He inspired two wealthy men to back his mission, and that order grew quickly. Juan Ciudad died in Granada in 1550 as he tried to save a drowning boy. His order grew after his death, and today operates over 250 specialized hospitals and health centers in almost fifty countries.
- St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614): the year that Juan Ciudad died, St. Camillus de Lellis was born. He initially began his foray into life as a soldier who was afflicted with excessive gambling and an aggressive nature. He later returned to a hospital that previously dismissed him and eventually became director of that facility. He then founded a religious order and became the Universal Patron of the sick, hospitals and nurses. It is thought that he possessed the gifts of healing and prophecy, although he remained sick most of his life from a non-healing leg wound. His Order of Clerks Regular Ministers to the Sick (Camillians), assisted soldiers on the battlefield and devoted themselves to plague victims and alcoholics. St. Cammillus used the sign of the red cross, which still is used today. He also developed the first ambulance service and what is now known as the first home hospice.
- James Derham (c. 1757-1802): Derham was the first African-American to formally practice medicine in the United States, although he never received a medical degree. Born into slavery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Derham was owned by several doctors. One of his owners, Dr. Robert Dove of New Orleans, encouraged Derham’s interest in medicine. By working as a nurse, he purchased his freedom by 1783 and opened a medical practice. Derham spoke English, French and Spanish and had a wide range of clients, serving all races. He specialized in throat disorders and diseases related to climate. Derham disappeared around 1802, fate unknown. New Orleans established the James Derham Middle School (now Junior High School) in 1960 in his honor.
- Walt Whitman (1819-1892): Although more recognized as a writer and poet, Whitman is, perhaps, the most noted male nurse in modern history. He spent a better part of his time during the American Civil War as a volunteer nurse after his brother was wounded. During these hospital years Whitman was known to be constantly scribbling in little notebooks made of pieced together scraps of paper. These now prized notebooks are filled with bits of poetry, addresses of friends and notes concerning the needs of the wounded soldiers. Whitman immortalized his nursing work in his poem, “The Wound Dresser.”
- Edward L. T. Lyon (mid-twentieth century): On October 6, 1955, Edward Lyon became the first man to receive a commission as a reserve officer in the U.S. Army Corps. Lt. Lyon, a nurse anesthetist, joined 3,500 commissioned women in the Corps in an act that finally overcame the U.S. military objection to male nurses. This objection was overruled by an amendment to the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947 that went into effect in August 1954, thanks to Rep. Frances Bolton of Ohio, a long-time nursing supporter. This change in military status of male nursing led to the growth of men in various military nurse corps. By 1990, approximately thirty percent of the registered nurses in military nursing were men, a percentage that is far higher than that of men in public nursing roles. The image of Lyon is from Men in Nursing Facebook Page.
- Joe Hogan (late twentieth century): An African-American associate-degree nurse, Hogan applied for admission to earn his bachelor’s degree in nursing at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus in 1979. Although other schools offered associate-to-bachelor’s degree programs, none were available in the local area other than MUW. Mr. Hogan was denied admission based solely upon his gender. He sued for violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but the State argued that it had a tradition and a legitimate interest in providing educational opportunities for women in sex-segregated programs. Justice Sarah Day O’Conner found the State’s argument unpersuasive in the appeal, and today publicly funded schools of nursing cannot bar men from admission. In 2008, university President Limbert announced that MUW would remove “women” from the university’s name. Hogan was last heard from sometime in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina. He was working as a surgical anesthesiologist in New Orleans, according to his former attorney.
Books used for research on this article include:
- Rodriguez, Junius P. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007. 253-54. Available as an eBook at Google Books.
- O’Lynn RN PhD, Chad. Men in Nursing: History, Challenges, and Opportunities. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, 2006. Available as an eBook at Google Books.