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Before compassion: sympathy, tact and the history of the ideal nurse
  1. Sarah Chaney
  1. Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London, London E1 4NS, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Sarah Chaney, Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London, London E1 4NS, UK; s.chaney{at}


The word ‘compassion’ is ubiquitous in modern healthcare. Yet few writers agree on what the term means, and what makes it an essential trait in nursing. In this article, I take a historical approach to the problem of understanding compassion. Although many modern writers have assumed that compassion is a universal and unchanging trait, my research reveals that the term is extremely new to healthcare, only becoming widely used in 2009. Of course, even if compassion is a new term in nursing, the concept could have previously existed under another name. I thus consider the emotional qualities associated with the ideal nurse during the interwar period in the UK. While compassion was not mentioned in nursing guidance in this era another term, ‘sympathy’, made frequent appearance. The interwar concept of sympathy, however, differs significantly from the modern one of compassion. Sympathy was not an isolated concept. In the interwar era, it was most often linked to the nurse’s tact or diplomacy. A closer investigation of this link highlights the emphasis laid on patient management in nursing in this period, and the way class differentials in emotion between nurse and patient were considered essential to the efficient running of hospitals. This model of sympathy is very different from the way the modern ‘compassion’ is associated with patient satisfaction or choice. Although contemporary healthcare policy assumes ‘compassion’ to be a timeless, personal characteristic rooted in the individual behaviours and choices of the nurse, this article concludes that compassionate nursing is a recent construct. Moreover, the performance of compassion relies on conditions and resources that often lie outside of the nurse’s personal control. Compassion in nursing—in theory and in practice—is inseparable from its specific contemporary contexts, just as sympathy was in the interwar period.

  • medical humanities
  • nursing education
  • cultural history

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  • Contributors The named author is the sole contributor to this work, having undertaken all research and writing of this paper. Colleagues who contributed with comments and advice are named in the acknowledgements.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study. Bibliography provided with article. No further data produced.

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