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The Catholic Forum lists 8 Saints as patrons of nursing, some factual some apocryphal. Alexius, Camillus of Lellis and St John of God were men who dedicated their lives to the service of the sick and poor and inspired, or founded male religious communities of nurses. Alexius the son of a wealthy Roman senator, considered to be the ‘Holy Man of God’ was to be married but his fiancee let him pursue his vocation. He lived a life of prayer and teaching the cathechism in the guise of a beggar in the home of his parents. He is the patron St of the Alexian Brothers. Camillus de Lellis was the son of a military officer. A ‘wayward’ youth, he later joined the Capuchin order, however illness prevented him from taking his vows. He later became administrator of the San Giacomo hospital in Rome and eventually became a priest. He dedicated his life to the service of the sick and poor as a penance his is misspent youth. He founded the Congregation of the Servants of the Sick (the Camellians) who care for the sick in home and hospital. John of God, another wayward youth left the military to purse a vocation of caring for the sick, poor and homeless; giving what he had, begged for those who couldn’t, carried those who would not walk on their own. John founded the Order of Charity and the Order of Hospitallers of Saint John of God. Is there a theme running here? Does God call all those wayward youths with misspent childhoods to care for the sick?
I saw this poster on a website which chronicles some of the milestones in the history of men in nursing. Apparently in India (250 BC) only men were considered ‘pure’ enough to become nurses. During the Byzantine Empire nursing was also an occupation primarily practiced by men. During the time of the European plagues religious orders of men were established to provide nursing care. The earliest of these were the Alexian Brothers. In the 12th century a group of men and women banded together to care for the victims of the plague. This group were considered unorthodox and heretical because of their activities. Which of course was to simply follow the commandments of Christ. Some of this group, located around the Rhine, formed the origins of the Alexian Brothers; named so because they took on as their patron 5th century St Alexis. The also aparently recieved support from the Franciscan community. Other military, religious and lay communities continued to provide nursing care in the Middle Ages; the Knights Hospitalers, the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony and the Knights of St Lazarus are some of the more well known. St. John of God and St. Camillus de Lellis both started out as soldiers, and later turned to nursing came from this period.
An interesting point they note on this site is that in America from around the 1900s as female nursing organisations became more prevalent and organised men came to be excluded from nursing. With the formation of the Army Nursing Corps in 1901 men were no longer able to serve as nurses, the same was the case during the Korean war. It was only after the later that men were allowed to serve as nurses in the military an the numbers of men serving in civilian nursing roles also grew. Eventually nursing schools that were open exclusively to females began to open their doors to men.
This website provoked my interest partly because of the reference to nursing and male religious communities. I wonder if I’d been raised Catholic (which seems to be the predominate denomination where male religious orders existed, I don’t know if there are any Anglican Religious Orders exclusively for nurses, must find that out) and known of them whether or not I might have ended up as an Alexian or John of God brother. I was also intrigued to learn about the shift from nursing being a predominantly male profession – vocation – to predominantly female; of course the numbers today are still heavily female but the numbers of men are increasing.
Nursing; are you man enough. I had to laugh at that poster. I can vividly recall a female lecturer who stood up in front of my sociology class. Extending her hands out at the shoulder, palms facing down, with fingers loose and wiggling, she said what am I… no one answered … a… she said referring to the female reproductive organs. She then proceeded to tell the few men in my class (well most merely adolescents just out of school) how we did not belong in a woman’s profession. It strikes me now I would have liked to have known this information about men and nursing then that I read today.