Men in Nursing – The Stigma and the history.

By March 31, 2016Nursing
  • When I was a little girl, I thought all nurses were women.  Women who wore white and stuck me with needles, to be exact.  Obviously, I had several surgeries as a kid.
  • When I joined the Navy, my instructors in Hospital Corpsman A School were two male Hospital Corpsmen and a female Nurse Corps officer named Lieutenant Bonney. (If you know her, I would love to get back in touch)
  • At my first duty station, I finally met a male nurse. He was my charge nurse on 7A, medicine/oncology.  He was a bit of an oddity, but not an original.  There were several male nurses at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in 1990; however, the lion’s share were women. Very often, extremely young women – maybe new graduate nurses.  I still considered nursing a female profession; not consciously, but when I thought of nurses they were always women.
  • When I started nursing school, there were a few men in my class.  I think I still considered nursing a female profession.  It’s amazing how long I held on to that stereotype.  When I worked PICU during nursing school, there were three or four male nurses, and they were great! However….. stereotypes die hard.
  • And happily, I now consider nursing a profession……. which easily crosses gender lines.  It is exactly like being an accountant, but with more stool and (slightly) fewer meetings.  But it took a long time.  🙂

The stereotypes for men in nursing are pretty amazing, since the first nurses were actually men.  Women came on the scene much later.  As a matter of fact, the word ‘nosocomial’ (hospital acquired) comes from the ‘nosocomi’, who were the men who provided nursing care in ancient Rome. The very first nursing school was in India, and only men were considered pure enough to be nurses (Bruce Wilson, Ph.D., RN,).  Male religious orders founded hospitals and cared for the sick, such as the Alexian Brothers, and the Benedictines.  Juan Ciudad, founded what would become known as the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God. 

Friar Juan de Mena was the first Nurse in America.  He was a Mexican nurse and a lay brother of the Order of Santo Domingo, shipwrecked decades before America was settled at Plymouth Rock.

Walt Whitman served as a nurse during the Civil War, and in fact wrote a poem called The Wound Dresser about his experience.

And then the Crimean War happened, and there was Flo.  However, she notes that the male ‘orderlies’ provided nursing care.

The Army Nurse Corps in the US was formed in 1901, and men were excluded from serving until 1955.

Some nursing programs specifically excluded males as recently as 1982.

And here we are.  The profession is still only about 10% men, but I see this changing rapidly.  Indeed, since 1970 the number of men in nursing has tripled.

25So how do men fit in nursing? Perfectly in my mind, but some patients have been slow to change their minds.  I find this disturbing. It is as if some patients consider a male nurse’s contact with their body ‘wrong’. This might indicate some feeling of sexual inappropriateness with a male providing their care as opposed to a female, and it makes absolutely no sense to me.  I remember a guy in my nursing school class who was crushed because no laboring mothers would allow him to participate in their births based on his gender. If he had been a Medical Student, not a word would have been said.  He went on to become a fabulous NICU nurse.15413-a-male-nurse-taking-the-blood-pressure-of-a-woman-pv

Of course, I am sure the reason for refusal of a male caregiver is not always a feeling of sexual inappropriateness.  Some women just do not feel comfortable with any male ‘seeing’ the more intimate parts of their body. It is simply outside of their comfort zone.  These women often see a female physician for the same reason.  I have never seen a male patient refuse a female nurse, or insist on a male physician; but I understand it happens occasionally.  I have been asked by many male coworkers to place a foley catheter in a female patient, because they care so much about how the female patient will feel about a male performing the procedure.  Male nurses are probably way more sensitive to their patient’s needs in this regard than female nurses, if I am honest.  I have never asked a patient if they would prefer that a male nurse place a urinary catheter.  That may be a failing on my part, but it is more likely related to the fact that no one has ever asked me to get a nurse of the opposite sex.

I try to respect my patient’s wishes, but it seems that the stigma lives on.  What will it take for the general public to see male nurses as equally caring and competent professionals who have no designs on their person? We are not interested in your body beyond your medical problems.  We have no desire to see you naked, except for what needs to come off to conduct a proper assessment.  As a matter of fact, female nurses can be a little too nonchalant about modesty at times, because we simply do not even notice that you are exposed.  It doesn’t register, because it is a normal part of the job.  It is also a normal part of the job to respect your modesty, so we do our best not to forget.

This crazy website indicates in extremely straight language that women should never allow a male provider to do an ‘intimate’ exam, because they could be sexually assaulted.  It is mind boggling.

Until these stigmas go away, we will simply have to make our patients comfortable, and abide by their wishes.  However, I encourage you to share this blog with others to raise awareness that nurses of both genders are equally competent and sensitive to the needs of their patients.

Thanks to all of my male colleagues for everything you do.

Discussion? Comment!








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Author Janie Garner

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Nurse Beth says:

    Great article. I am so glad to see more and more men in nursing with every new cohort.

  • PatientJim says:

    In all honesty the issue of ignoring patients rights to modesty isn’t just your failing it’s a failing on the industry as a whole. For some reason the medical (use to be profession but has become simply a busniess) business has decided patient needs are something they shouldn’t be bothered with? The issue you discuss is enforced through intimidation with total disregard for the religious beliefs, personal comfort or trust level of their customers. Perhaps Gooliging sexual assult, rape, molestation or groping by doctors would help you grasp the mind boggling concept of sexual assults by male medical personnel on female patients. I have personally collected news articles on over 500 doctors in less than 8 months which envolved more than a couple thousand female victims. That number doesn’t include doctors who are not reported, women victims who are ashamed to come forward or the damage to their families. Also consider less than 70% of complaints against doctors are never investigated. Medical license boards don’t communicate across state line therefore it isn’t uncommon to find one of the few disciplined doctors still practicing in another state. In addition the ones who are convicted receive minor slaps on the wrist. Example a California pediatrician convicted of 26 counts of sexual abuse on a minor was sentenced to 1 yr house arrest and 5yrs probation. However I can relate to some of your feelings. I find it mind boggling this “profession” isn’t regulated any better than it is and that people continue to blindly trust them? ?????? I also find it mind boggling an industry with such a hidious track record expects people to trust them and find it odd if they don’t. I highly recommend the book “Women and Doctors” by retired Doctor John M. Smith. Doctor Smith tells stories about his experience in the field of gynecology and the behind the scenes happenings to vile for discussion. Any woman contemplating using the service of one of these (extremely high probity perverts) should pick up a copy prior to making such a mistake.

    • Janie Garner says:

      Hi, Jim. Did I reference your site in my post?

      I am a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, so I probably don’t need to google anything today. 🙂 I am a passionate advocate for victims of sexual assault, and Military Sexual Trauma.

      There is a tiny percentage of the medical profession who have abused the trust of patients. When you consider the three million nurses and one million doctors who practice in the United States every day, 500 accusations seems to be a fairly small amount. However, as medical professionals we know that 500 victims are 500 too many. All patients should be safe at the hands of their caregivers, and to violate that sacred trust is absolutely deplorable. The very worst thing that can happen, barnone. May they all go to prison.

      However, you have 500 accusations, Jim. You do not have 500 convictions. The medical profession does not have a hideous track record. Though the study is somewhat old, it appears that 761 physicians were disciplined in 15 years. As a comparison, 3400 PRIESTS were sanctioned in 10 years. I am not going to bother looking up any other professions, but as most rapists are white males I am sure we can assume that there are some perverts in every profession.

      At any rate, this is a post that is celebrating male nurses, who make a tremendous contribution to healthcare. They give extremely competent and sensitive care, and I am proud to work with them every single day.



  • Richard Harman says:

    This Nurse really appreciated the way in which you stated the case! Thanks Janie,
    Richard Dean

  • PatientJim says:


    First allow me to answer your questions regarding another site by saying the site you reference isn’t mine as I do not have one, Second allow me to salute you, I am a veteran of Uncle Sam’s gain canoe club myself. We can disagree but we’ll always be brothers/sisters in arms first. I will not argue all accused doctors are guily. I do have very strong suppositions for every innocent one there are more than 10 who are not complained on. How do you argue a sacred duty that requires violating sacred commandments to carry out????? Regardless it’s late so I’m requesting permission to come aboard. Then I intend to untried my rack and remain there until the I hear now hear this all hands heave hoe & trice up. Give a clean sweep down fore & aft. Smoking lamp is now lit. Sound famialiar? I’m eden in this ole gunners mate ‘s just like firing a 5″ 38. God Bless

    • Janie Garner says:

      That it does, Jim. The number of reported sexual assaults is always < the number of assaults that occur. Agree. However, we can only hope they get the courage to come forward. Sexual assault victims are so fragile, and they deserve closure.

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