Nurses on the Cutting Edge

This post is the third in a series exploring the history of nursing and domestic violence from the guest blogger Catherine Jacquet, Assistant Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University and guest curator of NLM’s exhibition Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives.

The cover/title page of a document.

Guidelines for the Treatment of Battered Women Victims in Emergency Room Settings, Dan Sheridan, Linda Belknap, Barbara Engel, Susan Katz, Patricia Kelleher, 1985
National Library of Medicine

From California to Kentucky, Maryland to Massachusetts, nurses were at the forefront of identifying battered women as a population with specific needs and implementing better health provisions for them. Nurses wrote some of the very first articles addressing the health needs of battered women. Published in leading journals like The American Journal of Nursing, Registered Nurse, and Nurse Practitioner, these articles advocated for proper identification of battered women, empathetic care, and a treatment plan that included the battering itself as a medical priority. A key piece of this treatment plan was providing resources that could help her to live more safely and reduce the risks to her health. Recognizing that the nurse was often the first or only person some battered women ever disclosed to, nurses saw their role as particularly crucial. “Because of their unique role in health care,” one reformer wrote, “nurses are often at the cutting edge of exposing and treating this form of abuse so carefully hidden from others.” Along with reform-oriented physicians, social workers, and mental health professionals, nurses would play a critical role in improving the medical understandings and responses to battered women over the course of the next decades.

The cover/title page of a document 32 page document.

Domestic Violence: The Development and Implementation of a Hospital Protocol for the Identification and Treatment of Battered Women, Patricia McGrath, Phyllis Schultz, and P. O’Dea Culhane, 1980
National Library of Medicine

Across the country, nurses came to recognize battering as a pressing issue and many initiated programs and protocols at their hospitals to provide better services for women victims of domestic abuse. In a surprisingly early intervention, emergency department nurses at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital initiated and implemented the country’s first hospital protocol for the identification and treatment of battered women in 1977. Headed by Patricia McGrath, RN, the Brigham and Women’s hospital program on domestic violence was modeled on an earlier protocol of care for victims of sexual violence, which had been developed there in 1974 and which “provided intensive crisis intervention for the victim at the time of the initial emergency.” Realizing that “the battered woman, like the rape victim, had needs other than attention to physical injuries,” members of the Ambulatory Nursing Department brought together a multidisciplinary committee of nurses, social workers, and emergency room administrators to examine the issue of battering and “propose effective action.” This team created a protocol to identify, treat, and provide support and resources to battered women who came to the emergency room. Over the next decades, nurses across the country would create protocols similar in intent and purpose.

In a less common though equally notable intervention, some nurses provided services in battered women’s shelters. Teaching at Wayne State University, Detroit, nurse Jacqueline Campbell began volunteering at Women in Transition, a local women’s shelter. Here she ran a support group for abused women and, with colleague Janice Humphreys, set up healthcare services for abused women and their children at the shelter.

She explained her own volunteer work at Women In Transition, where she and Humphreys found themselves “dealing with almost every kind of nursing problem imaginable.” Campbell had also made connections to other local shelters, which nursing students in her courses at Wayne State University used as clinical settings, and provided healthcare services for residents.

In Baltimore, nurse Barbara Parker (teaching at the University of Maryland), supervised RN students who provided services at House of Ruth shelter, using it as a clinical setting. Parker was a “founding mother” of the House of Ruth in 1977 and supervised nursing students there beginning in 1979. The in-shelter healthcare programs created by Campbell, Humphreys, and Parker were some of the very first in the country.

A newspaper or newsletter clipping of a photograph of a group of women posing together.

Nurse Barbara Parker (bottom left) with the nursing faculty at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, 1980
Courtesy Historical and Special Collections, Health Sciences and Human Services Library, University of Maryland, Baltimore

Recognizing the inadequacies of the medical system when treating battered women nationwide, nurses and their allies created programs and publications to begin to respond to the needs of a population desperately in need of improved services.

Learn more about why NLM is hosting this important exhibition.