Nelson, Sioban 1943-

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NELSON, Sioban 1943-


Born 1943, in Cork, Ireland. Education: La Trobe University, B.A. (history), 1976; Royal Darwin Hospital, R.N., 1985; Griffith University, Ph.D. (ethics), 1996. Hobbies and other interests: Movies, music, "going bush," cooking and eating.


Office—School of Nursing, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne, Level 1, 723 Swanston Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia. E-mail—[email protected].


Registered nurse, Northern Territory and Queensland, Australia; Queensland University of Technology, faculty member; University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia, associate professor at School of Postgraduate Nursing, deputy head of school, chair of research committee, adjunct fellow of Centre for the Study of Health and Society; Nursing Inquiry, editor; City University, London, England, visiting professor; Rosenstadt Visiting Professor, University of Toronto, 2001. Foundation director, Australian Nursing History Project.


Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences postdoctoral fellowship awards, 1997.


(Editor with Michael Clinton) Advanced Practice in Mental-Health Nursing, Blackwell Science (Malden, MA), 1999.

A Genealogy of Care of the Sick, Nursing Praxis Press (Southsea, England), 2000.

Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns, and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 2001.

Also author of numerous journal articles, book chapters, and reviews.


A general history of nursing and an examination of virtue ethics in medical professions.


Sioban Nelson, a registered nurse with a bachelor's degree in history and a doctorate in humanities, received a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in 1997, during which time she researched and wrote a history of nineteenth-century religious nurses in Australia, Britain, and North America. She was interested in the impact of these nuns on the professional formation of nursing. Previous scholarship on the history of nursing had largely ignored the contributions of these women, focusing instead on Florence Nightingale as the traditional founder of modern nursing. Nelson's study emphasizes the earlier efforts of women she refers to as "vowed women," a term that includes nuns, sisters, and deaconesses of various religions. Her work was published in 2001 as Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns, and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century.

Nelson's wide-ranging book discusses the development of modern professional nursing and the many religion-based hospitals, as well as the male bias that these early nurses had to face from both physicians and religious clerics. The nuns faced many challenges in dealing with the sick and they learned very quickly, in the words of Journal of the American Medical Association reviewer Linda K. Strodtman, how to overstep the "gender boundaries to address the health care needs of poor immigrants, frontier settlers, soldiers, and victims of epidemics." These women came from many different religious denominations including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist.

Nelson points out many interesting facts. One such detail is that in the United States, by 1900, Catholic nuns had founded almost 300 different hospitals. Seventeen years later, these Catholic hospitals represented half of the health care system in the States. "These nurses," wrote Strodtman, "were experts in their craft—clinically, politically, financially—and understood the value of these elements in furthering their work."

One of the reasons that these pre-Florence Nightingale nurses were not recognized, Nelson posits, is that religious orders discouraged egotism. The nuns worked as a unit, a community. As Bernadette McCauley put it in New York Time, Nelson argues "that together they were just as influential as Nightingale, models who made nursing an acceptable occupation for all women later on, not just for nuns." Although McCauley expressed disappointment that Nelson does not discuss the influence of religion on the nuns' works and lives, she concluded that Say Little, Do Much offers a "compelling" case for "some re-evaluation of the history of nursing."

Nelson is foundation director of the Australian Nursing History Project, an interdisciplinary multimedia project that aims to promote the study of nursing history, to assist in the preservation of historical material through the establishment of a register and database of nursing resources, and to provide Internet access to a database of historical resources in collaboration with the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre.



English Historical Review, November 2002, Anne Summers, review of Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns, and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 369-370.

Journal of the American Medical Association, August 28, 2002, Linda K. Strodtman, review of Say Little, Do Much.

New York Times, December 16, 2002, Bernadette McCauley, "Carry on, Nurse," p. 16.


Irish Hour (radio transcript), SBS Radio, 1998.

The Scattering: The Irish Empire (five-part television series), SBS/BBC Television.

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Nelson, Sioban 1943-

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